Thursday, December 16, 2010

Captain Alatriste: A Review

Acclaimed Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte is probably most well known for his bestselling novel The Club Dumas (and the ill-advised film version starring Johnny Depp). However, he is also the author of a wonderful series set in 17th century Spain, the first installment of which is titled Captain Alatriste. If you thought the swashbuckling novel died with Alexandre Dumas, think again.

In many ways, Captain Alatriste is almost a Spanish version of The Three Musketeers, combining real history with fictional adventure in a way that both entertains and informs. As with the Dumas classic (and all good historical fiction), true events are often bent to fit the flow of the story, but who really cares? You're not studying for an exam on the Golden Age of Spain; you're escaping the modern world to roam the streets of 1620s Madrid, sword in hand.

Perez-Reverte is a very skilled writer, and his words bring Madrid of 400 years ago to life on every page. In 300 pages he gives us ominous masked figures, Italian assassins, rogue priests, the Inquisition, a war in Flanders, painters, poets, and royalty, and the coolest swordsman this side of Aramis (or was it Porthos?).

The plot conforms to the traditional swashbuckling adventure tale: the famous but down on his luck soldier Captain Diego Alatriste is hired by three mysterious (yet obviously important) men to murder two Englishmen who have traveled to Madrid. When Alatriste and his fellow brigand (the aforementioned Italian assassin) encounter the pair, Alatriste is so impressed by the fact that his opponent asks that his friend be spared (while asking no quarter for himself), he stops the Italian from killing the other Englishman and then leads the pair to safety. This good deed earns Alatriste both gratitude and enmity from some surprising people, and how he navigates his way through the maze of alliances keeps the pages turning.

The pace of the story is handled expertly; there are breaks in the action at just the right points, and the action returns before the narrative has a chance to become tedious. Alatriste is a flawed hero, but he is a hero nonetheless, a man who holds to his standards of loyalty and honor in a time when allegiances shifted with the wind. And the fight scenes are so realistic you can almost hear the clash of steel on steel.

Captain Alatriste sold more than one million copies in Spain alone, and it has become an international bestseller as well; the five installments that follow it have also been hugely successful worldwide. So if you enjoy adventure tales along the lines of The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo, you will certainly not be disappointed by Captain Alatriste.

Now into the fray...

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