Onyx reviews: The King's Gold by
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
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
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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