I was suitably forewarned, by no lesser authority than the introduction of this very volume, that the fourth of Dumas’ five volumes in the D’Artagnan Romances is the weakest link. So it turned out to be. Whereas the other parts are full of adventure, plotting, sword-play, buccaneering and camaraderie, this one is just….. boring. It’s focused almost entirely upon timid palace romance, particularly Louis XIV’s inept flirtations with his sister’s maid of honour Valliere.
And oh my isn’t she a boring character! She spends the entire book wittering on about a lady’s honour while strenuously declining the king’s advances even though she loves him. At one point the little drama queen runs off to a convent. It made me wish Milady made a comeback.
I’m not satirising it when I say this romance has the pair meeting under willow trees in the rain to share protestations of love, writing poetry on hand-delivered missives, or sharing glances and blushes at court. The king tries climbing up a ladder to sneak a conversation at her second storey window without her guardian seeing. It boggles my mind that such trite romance weighs down a series full of war and violence.
The three musketeers are barely in it, and D’Artagnan makes only brief appearances to shepherd the love-strick Louis XIV around. I’d say the vast part of the book’s 669 pages concentrate on the passage of a couple of weeks at the palace of Fountainbleau. It’s hard to remember precisely what happens because it got samey. And I only finished the bloody thing two days ago, two weeks after starting.
Despite all this, I still enjoyed reading. So, why?
Well, first and foremost is the sense of epic scope that the full series represents. This is a hugely ambitious story where each of the five volumes is epic in itself. Reading Length places them at a total of almost a million words, compared to an average paperback’s 70k. It isn’t a run of disjointed stories either. The same characters drop in and out and Dumas will foreshadow events not due to reach a head until a thousand pages later. For example, in Louise de la Valliere we see Aramis first ferreting out the secret of the King’s twin imprisoned in the Bastille and his buttering up of both the prison governor (for the later escape attempt) and the King’s financier Forquet who’s palace will be scene of the coup d’etat. I’d made the mistake of reading The Man In The Iron Mask first  so it was nice to see all the patient set-up of palace intrigues where I already knew the payoff.
I also loved how all main characters develop over time as they age. Louis XIV is first introduced in Twenty Years Later as a small boy of no consequence as the story focuses more on his mother and father but by the Vicomte Of Bragelonne he’s a sharp-eyed ruler whose relationship with D’Artagnan builds so that by the events Man In The Iron Mask we understand why the fiery Gascon sides with him. We also see very patient set-up of the jostling between Colbert and Fouquet for the King’s ear and the importance of the Belle Isle fortress where the whole saga eventually ends.
It’s as epic a story as I’ve ever read and it felt like a privilege to finally finish all five volumes. I may never read such a saga again. The only thing that comes close is Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi story though it’s probably less than half the length of this one. That too is awesome, and thoroughly recommended. If readers can suggest another, please do 
Unlike the other volumes, there’s really not much to say about this one. The series really dipped here. No good villains, no great missions, no real suspense. It just stumbled along setting up character arcs and plot points for the next volume. It’s the Two Towers of the D’Artagnan Romances. Now that I’ve read the full thing, I’d definitely recommend reading all five in the correct order. However, if you’re on the fence just try The Three Musketeers. If that grabs you, try the next two Twenty Years Later and Vicomte De Bragelonne. All three are fantastic and if you make it that far you’ll be so invested you really won’t mind the little dip on quality Louis de la Valliere represents before the rousing finale of Man In The Iron Mask.
If you’d like to read an epic story covering nearly a million words you’ll be pretty excited about my memoir series. When the soon-to-be-released third volume is out that’ll bring it up to 600k words and at least one more still to come.
 Understandable, as only that and the first two volumes are widely published, and usually presented as a trilogy as if books three and four didn’t exist.
 And don’t you dare suggest Robert Jordan’s Wheel Of Time abomination or you’ll be insta-banned.