A depiction of the tragic jockeying for power – the bloody revolts and counter-revolts – that led to and sustained the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. In 1793, a peasant revolt incites a larger Royalist resurrection against the ruling Republicans, who themselves seized power from the French throne in 1789. The revolts appear all over Brittany and the other western regions of France, with the support of monarchical Great Britain, and spark brutal fighting amongst the Republican "Blues" and Royalist "Whites." When the novel opens, the Blues have taken control with bloody ferocity.
It is in the wake of one of these crackdowns that we first meet Michelle Flechard. Her husband and parents have already been killed, and now, with her three terrified children in tow, wants only to escape the fighting. The Blues who have control of the area take pity on her and agree to offer their protection and care.
The Whites, though, aren't yet beaten in the area. A local nobleman, Marquis de Lantenac, has the tactical and strategic brilliance to breathe new life into the Royalist cause. But first he has to make it to Brittany from his ship out in the Channel. Unfortunately, his ship, already damaged by a sailor's mishap, is spotted by a Blue naval force before they can make landfall. Knowing how important Lantenac is, the ship's crew hustle him off the ship in a small boat and then engage the Blue navy in a suicidal attack, hoping to buy Lantenac enough time to escape. The plan works. Lantenac meets up with his local supporters and shifts the White's focus from defense to offense.
He attacks and defeats the troop of Blues we met earlier in the novel, capturing Michelle Flechard along with many Republican soldiers. Not known for his compassion, Lantenac orders them all executed. By a miracle, Michelle survives the firing squad. A beggar finds her and tends her wounds, and Michelle learns that Lantenac has taken her three children as potential hostages. Lantenac continues to win victory after victory, and the Republican government in Paris is forced to act. They send a high-ranking revolutionary named Cimourdain to oversee Gauvain, the top Blue commander in Brittany, and ensure that the governmental orders to execute every last Royalist rebel and sympathizer is carried out. They do not know that Cimourdain helped raise Gauvain, but Cimourdain is committed and does not believe this is a genuine conflict of interest, and so does not share this information.
Gauvain learns that Lantenac will attempt to secure a large beachhead for British reinforcements to safely land and join up with his White forces. So Gauvain, with Cimourdain's help, launches a series of attacks that keep the White forces from doing just that. The White supporters, realizing that without British help they can't hope to succeed, largely abandon Lantenac, who makes his final stand in his Breton castle, surrounded by Gauvain's army. Michelle, meanwhile, learns that Lantenac has her children in the castle with him.
During the final assault on the castle, Lantenac sets a series of fires and escapes during the mayhem. Michelle's children are trapped by the fire, and overcome with grief and terror, Michelle screams and wails. Lantenac hears and, feeling guilty, returns to free her children, knowing that it will lead to his capture. Lantenac is placed in chains and readied for execution. Gauvain meets with him in his cell. The two adversaries share their opposing opinions of government – and ultimately of life itself – and Gauvain proves himself the more noble man by secretly releasing Lantenac, in part for Lantenac returning to free Michelle's children. Gauvain surrenders to Cimourdain.
Cimourdain is tormented by this, since he has been given ironclad instructions on how to deal with rebels, which Gauvain has now technically become upon releasing Lantenac. A tribunal is formed, and despite the intense guilt and horror this causes Cimourdain, he orders Gauvain executed. But Cimourdain does not let himself off so easily either. As the guillotine falls on Gauvain, Cimourdain, his duty done, kills himself with his pistol.
Best part of story, including ending:
Hugo is always melodramatic (NINETY-THREE is a litany of deaths, suicides, screaming lamentations by forlorn women, etc.), but good lord does he know how to write powerful fiction.
Best scene in story:
In the final scene(s), Hugo does such a fantastic job making us feel Cimourdain's torment between his love for his quasi-son, Gauvain, and his love for the French Republic which demands Gauvain's death.
Opinion about the main character:
Cimourdain, Gauvain, and Lantenac are ostensibly larger and more superficially interesting characters, but Michelle, with her simple desire to keep her children alive and safe in a brutal warzone, is a character the reader immediately latches onto, and it's no surprise that it's the fate of her children that drive the final stages of the plot.