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Onyx reviews: The King's Gold by Arturo PÚrez-Reverte

The third novel in the Captain Alatriste series, The Sun Over Breda, was dark, grim and violent, focusing on the trenchant war in Flanders, where the Spanish army threatened to go on strike over lack of payment. The King's Gold, the fourth book to be translated into English, returns to the swashbuckling feel of the initial installments, inspired by such classic Spanish novels as The Three Musketeers.

Unlike the more successful monarchies, Spain never found the balance between centralized authority and the power of individual aristocrats and feudal lords, not to mention the vast influence wielded by the church. This makes the king's stringent taxation unpalatable to the wealthy. However, King Philip must be given his due, and any cargo that enters the country, especially that which comes back from the West Indies, is taxable.

The king is driven by one imperative: to increase the royal coffers so that he can finance the many foreign wars that are turning Spain into a shadow of its former glory. The face of one of these wars confronts Alatriste and his war-weary compadres when they sail into Cadiz in 1626. The city is festooned with the corpses of English soldiers executed after a recent, failed invasion attempt.

Captain Alatriste, his faithful sidekick ═˝igo Balboa, and his cortege head to Seville after they disembark. There they are hired to assemble a gang of ruffians to pretend to be pirates to capture a ship scheduled to arrive from the West Indies with a load of precious metals, much of which will not be declared. Alatriste knows that the defenders won't yield their illicit cargo easily, and he also has to be worried about insurrection from within, for there is truly no honor among thieves when a boatload of gold is involved. It's a dangerous mission, but one that could turn around Alatriste's fortunes. Some men grow rich in wars, but that was not the lot of the Spaniards.

With Alatriste and ═˝igo back in familiar territory, PÚrez-Reverte is able to invoke characters from previous adventures, most notably the Italian Gualterio Malatesta, who is as deadly and devoid of conscience as the good Captain, and Angelica de Alquezar, the lovely young woman who is ═˝igo's love interest, nemesis and personal demon. Malatesta is determined to best Alatriste in battle, and Angelica seduces and endangers ═˝igo at the same time.

Many writers explore the golden eras of their nations. PÚrez-Reverte focuses instead on the waning years of a former world power. His hero is a skilful soldier who is little different from the world-weary protagonist of a noir crime novel. Captain Alatriste's moral compass does not waver. He won't even torture a criminal for information, preferring instead to inflict the pain on himself. ═˝igo recognizes his master's disenchantment but he cannot comprehend it because the two men are at the opposite ends of their lives' trajectories. Alatriste is confronting his mortality and sixteen-year-old ═˝igo is on the verge of manhood.

Though a poet tags along with Alatriste's group, penning couplets and quatrains as a running commentary on events, the book does not overly romanticize the period. The frequent sword fights are brutal and unvarnished, and the final conflict aboard the treasure ship is suitably violent. Not even ═˝igo escapes unscathed

The book has a couple of fundamental flaws. ═˝igo is a first-person narrator who appears to have full access to information from scenes where he wasn't present. Secondly, the central section consists of a lengthy scene in the Seville prison the night before an execution. All of the prisoner's friends and associates gather to celebrate his soon-to-end life, a premature wake of a sort. Though it provides insight into an aspect of history rarely seen, the vignette ultimately has no relevance to the rest of the tale. .

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