Fans of historical fiction will find a lot to love in Arturo Perez-Reverte’s first novel about Captain Alatriste, but a healthy dose of patience and love of background will be needed to get into the story. With the new movie out starring Viggo Mortensen, although it hasn’t released here in the United States, I was expecting a novel of derring-do and fantastic escapes. Those things are there, but they’re sedate and more emotional than adrenaline-charged.
I like the character of Alatriste, who isn’t actually a commissioned captain. Rather, he’s one of very few survivors in a war that left dead soldiers strewn across battlefields. He’s also a man of honor and few words, a man who will do what he says he will do unless he is conflicted by that assignment. And that is what happens in Captain Alatriste.
A simple hired assassination, something that Alatriste doesn’t put himself above if the money is right and he is hard-pressed, turns out to be a matter of honor in the dimly lit alleyway where he and a companion set up. The swordplay there is well done and tense, and I imagined the scene and the choreography easily. I thoroughly enjoyed how Alatriste’s sense of fair play won out and instead of hero he becomes a champion.
But the consequences from that fateful night turn out to be far-reaching, and Alatriste realizes his life is forfeit if one wrong move is made. The tension at this point is great, and I kept waiting for the attacks alongside Alatriste. When they came out of left field, and other stakes were involved, I was as confused as the captain till everything got sorted out.
The narration is uneven, coming both from Alatriste’s young ward, twelve-year-old Inigo, and from an omniscient viewpoint, though this was doubtless Inigo recreating the events for the reader. I liked Inigo’s narration and descriptions of people and events, and I missed his voice when he wasn’t directly in a scene. Still, I understood completely that he couldn’t be there at all times because Alatriste – and circumstances – wouldn’t have allowed it.
I thought the fight that Inigo was involved in was fantastic, and the moon-swept landscape came alive in my imagination. The crack and thunder of the pistols, the razor song of steel on steel, all punctuated that struggle.
I love a good swashbuckler story. Some of my favorite movies and books are those tales. So far there are five Captain Alatriste tales, and I’m going to read them. I enjoyed the Spain of the 17th century that Perez-Reverte presents on the pages as much as I enjoyed the world he shows to his readers in The Fencing Master. If you haven’t read this author, be patient with him. He’s really good and deserves your attention.