Picked up my fourth book by Arturo Perez-Reverte last night at Fully Booked, The Man in the Yellow Doublet! I always visit bookstores when I’m out on the chance something interesting might be on bargain, and this was half price – a real steal. And despite my best intentions to rest my eyes after a week of editing pics, I finished it in one go.
This Captain Alatriste story is fifth in the series, occurring after the events in The Sun Over Breda and The King’s Gold. If anything, it’s an even more ferocious page-turner than the last Alatriste book I got, Pirates of the Levant. All the classic elements of swashbuckling adventure are in here: sinister black-cloaked assassins, affairs with actresses, duels in dark alleys, a King in disguise, secret plots by untouchable masterminds, and probably one of the youngest femme fatales I’ve ever read or seen. Now I really want to get the movie to see how Angelica de Alquezar was portrayed!
[Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!]
As in all the other books, the adventure is narrated by the character of Inigo Balboa, who by now has graduated from being Alatriste’s pageboy to a young but reliable sword-brother. All the events happen in and around Madrid, from its lowest, most dangerous dives to the elite circles of its literati and glitterati. Alatriste unwisely gets into an affair with the actress Maria de Castro, who is also desired by the King, Philip IV, himself. This plays right into the hands of Alatriste’s old enemies from the very first novel (Captain Alatriste), who use the conflict to frame Alatriste for the ultimate crime of regicide.
Here’s where Perez-Reverte refreshingly departs from Disneyfied takes on The Three Musketeers, for the swashbuckling here is far darker and grimmer. Long-standing friendships get broken, Madrid is ruled by blind passion, corruption and ruthless ambition, and life as a consequence is really dirty, short and cheap. Alatriste is no shining pure paladin; in a fit of cold rage, he enters a dive, provokes a fight, and kills in cold blood just to vent his anger. Yow.
The best part of the novel for me is the duel between Alatriste and his old friend Martin Saldana, a duel Balboa has alluded to in other books. The way Perez-Reverte handles it is fantastic though – terse, yet very well motivated and speaking volumes about the two characters and their milieu. The two friends are torn apart by conflicting duty and the honor-obsessed culture of the sword, and the desperate Alatriste resorts to a really dirty stratagem to provoke Saldana into making a fatal error. The duel ends on a truly masterful note, though, as the remorseful Alatriste does everything he can for the friend he’s just run through, making a pillow of a cloak for Saldana to rest on then stopping to call a surgeon before he proceeds with his own urgent business.
Overall, this is a really good and fast read, despite the characters’ almost Tolkienic-Elvish tendency to break out into verse all the time (the verses do add something, and Reverte mostly confines himself to single quatrains per dose). I’d meant to stop halfway, but just couldn’t close the book. Two thumbs up again for Capitan Alatriste!