If you have read much about the French Revolution at all, you've probably heard the name of Sanson, the executioner. This is the first part of his life, spanning only from 1754-1766; the rest will be covered in a sequel. Even still, the slightly more than three hundred pages has to move very quickly through his life (starting with him beginning to practice with a sword, in case he needs to behead a nobleman, at the age of fourteen), intermixed with that of a rowdy adolescent whose path with eventually cross with his.
Perhaps as a result of the vast scope, for most of the novel the historical setting and details is the primary draw. However, as the end approaches and the pace slows somewhat, Sanson's struggle to be truly an instrument of justice, as much as his duty makes it possible, and mercy when he can offer it, begins to truly come into focus after a lifetime of being torn between unthinkingly following his hereditary path and running away from it completely.
I look forward to the second volume and seeingthe eventual technological advancement in merciful execution that looms over eighteenth century France, although it is still decades away at the end of this book.
Overall grade: B