Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte isn’t a household name in America, but several of his standalone thrillers have been translated into English, most recently The Queen of the South. However, his series of 17th century historical swashbucklers were only available in Spanish until now. Captain Alatriste is the first of five books featuring the eponymous swordsman to be published in English between now and 2009.

Captain Diego Alatriste was forced into early retirement from the Spanish army by an injury received in Flanders during the Thirty Years’ War. His rank is apocryphal, not conferred upon him by any military body, though no one challenges his use of it. In Madrid, he earns a living as a sword for hire. His income isn’t steady, and he finds himself occasionally a guest of the state when he falls behind on his bills. Sometimes his work requires him to kill, but he is usually enlisted to scare someone on behalf of someone else. He takes great pride in his swordsmanship, and doesn’t dwell on those whose lives he has taken—though, if pressed, he could enumerate the precise count, and most of their names.

The book is narrated by Íñigo Balboa, the captain’s protégé and page, recounted in his later years, but still seen through the eyes of a young and mostly innocent boy whose father, a friend of Alatriste, was killed in battle. His mother, poor and with two daughters to feed, sent Íñigo to live with Alatriste when he was thirteen. Íñigo is no longer certain exactly when things occurred. The events in this story, he says, “must have taken place around sixteen hundred and twenty something.”

Captain Alatriste is an “origin story,” a term borrowed from comics to describe tales that depict a hero’s emergence from obscurity to become legendary. During the events recounted in this book, the captain comes to the attention of many powerful figures—though he doesn’t necessarily end up better off because of this unsought renown. Alatriste is hired by two masked men to attack a pair of Englishmen expected in Madrid. His instructions are clear—Alatriste is to relieve them of their papers and other belongings, but “no blood.” Scaring them is all that is necessary. In addition to their pay, he and his collaborator, Gualterio Malatesta, an Italian assassin possessed of fewer scruples than the captain, can split any money they find on their victims.

Before he is dismissed, another figure enters the scene, one so powerful that he has no need to hide his identity: Fray Emilio Bocanegra, president of the Spanish Inquisition, one of the most feared men in Europe. He countermands Alatriste’s previous orders. The two Englishmen are to be dispatched “with prejudice,” to use the modern vernacular.

The attack starts off as planned, but during the melee Alatriste realizes that there is more to these men than the innocuous names they’ve been given: Thomas and John Smith. Alatriste calls off the attack, a decision that has serious personal repercussions and international implications. He’s caught between the rock of Spanish politics and the hard place of a powerful Catholic church, not to mention in the bad grace of Malatesta, who Íñigo reveals will be Alatriste’s lifelong foe.

Pérez-Reverte is strongly influenced by Alexander Dumas, and he has adopted a voice for the narrator that richly conveys the story’s era. One of the great achievements of the novel is its depiction of Spain during a time when the former superpower’s star is fading. The Armada has been defeated, and the country’s place on the global stage is faltering. The author populates his tale with the colorful characters of the time, from the powerful to the poets who are the journalists of the era, skewering the mighty and capturing events—important as well as trivial—in verse. Readers familiar with the history and personages of the early 17th century may get more out of this series than casual readers, as it is not always clear which characters are fictional and which are historical. Also, the secondary cast features many frustratingly similar names, making it somewhat difficult to keep track of who’s who.

Some issues raised in this book won’t be resolved until future installments. Among these is Íñigo’s nascent fascination with young Angélica de Alquézar, who he sees during her frequent carriage rides through the city. Young Íñigo is smitten with her, but as an older man he reveals that this “blonde angel” will become “my sweetest, most dangerous, and mortal enemy.”

By the end of the story, Alatriste finds himself in the most precarious of positions—protected by powerful figures, but without guarantee. After all, accidents happen, and swordsmen, regardless of their reputations, have been known to lose fights. Alatriste is considering a period of retirement until the scandal he unwittingly became involved with blows over—at least until his next adventure, Purity of Blood, in 2006.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2007. All rights reserved.