When reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, although stylistically brilliant in many respects, one gets an overwhelming sense of the lack of purpose. The lead characters drift aimlessly through the trials and tribulations of the Russian aristocracy, seemingly destined to a fate outside the control of their individual decisions.
Cossacks in Paris covers the same historical period, but adds a sense of purpose that breathes life into the drama. Breutier Armande, the protagonist intent on reshaping the future with his engineering perspicacity, finds his ambitions thwarted by Napoleon's grandiose - and ill-fated - designs to expand his power by conquering Russia.
But all is not lost for Breutier. During Napoleon's march to Moscow, Breutier meets a beautiful Finnish Countess, Kaarina, on a scouting trip to St. Petersburg. Timing proves once again a double-edged sword for Breutier, as his chance encounter with the woman of his dreams clashes with Alexander's plans for the young beauty - to marry her off to a brutal Cossack adept at war named Agripin.
Alexander discovers a ready accomplice in Agripin whose Rousseauian lust motivates him to have Kaarina - by any means necessary.
The struggle of Breutier and Kaarina to be together against the backdrop of war machinations and a barbarous foe provide a central purpose that is lacking in novels like War and Peace. As Metternich remarks after having seen a confrontation between Breutier and Agripin:
"Those rulers [Napoleon and Alexander] are merely fighting over a continent. The two young men over a woman. I daresay the latter will always be more passionately pursued than the former, much as it defies logic."
It may defy logic for somebody like Metternich who is embroiled in political deceptions and a cunning pursuit of power, but it does not defy logic for those who seek the rational goal of a fulfilling romance.
Indeed, the reader finds himself tightly gripping the pages as the union of Breutier and Kaarina is constantly undermined by the political calculations of rulers, the switching allegiances during the uncertainty of war, and a Cossack intent on winning the prize, even though the prize has no desire to be his bloodlust trophy.
Mr. Perren's economical style moves one quickly from page-to-page while leaving little for interpretation, and everything to purposeful conquest.
And the reader is driven by one overriding question: will a man's passionate pursuit of a woman prove more powerful than a ruler's quest for an empire?
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