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Onyx reviews: Captain Alatriste by
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
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.
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