CAPTAIN ALATRISTE by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Penguin Books (PLUME), 2006, 284 pages, 0-452-28711-1, Trade Paperback, $14.00
Genre: Fiction/Period Fiction
There’s something about Captain Alatriste that reminds me of the Sharpe novels (Bernard Cornwell), only in Spain with court politics and mercenaries instead of in India with army politics and English soldiers. Also with about two hundred fewer pages. None of which really has any bearing on the book itself beyond the fact that I like the Sharpe books and I liked Captain Alatriste.
I first learned about this novel thanks to Bookmarks Magazine, though I’d seen other titles by Pérez-Reverte in the past and simply hadn’t realized it. Initially, I thought this would be a standalone book, but there are, of course, two other novels already released and several others scheduled for translation (which is to say, I certainly HOPE they’re scheduled for translation). I didn’t realize until a few days ago that there are, already several volumes in Spanish – that’s what looking up information about the author will tell you – but knowing, now, that the novels are almost episodic in nature makes me anticipate them that much more.
Diego Alatriste, formerly a soldier for Spain, is now a sword-for-hire since a wound received at Flanders forced him to leave the military. In this first novel, one of his old comrades arranges for him to take part in a commission (which some readers might find the slightest bit amusing, since this comrade is the constable in Madrid) that promises to pay very well. Alatriste accepts the job, which he later regrets when the repercussions come very close to killing him.
The characters themselves are well handled, and there aren’t so many that the reader needs to fear confusion. The majority of the characters are not part of the action sequences, for that matter, so while they make excellent peripherals, they don’t directly affect the main thrust of the plot. One of the more entertaining aspects of this is that some of the characters (beyond the major figures like Philip IV) are known in history. For instance, Francisco de Quevedo and (though he’s more mentioned than actually introduced), Diego Velázquez. There are, of course, many references to historical individuals and events, around which the plot of the novel works itself.
The story is told from the point of view of Íñigo, Alatriste’s young ward, as though he is writing about or telling the tale to others. He often reminisces over events in the future and also addresses the reader on occasion. It must also be assumed that Captain Alatriste has retold many of the events to Íñigo considering that, in some cases, he is relating events during which Íñigo was not present.
This style of storytelling becomes most interesting when it involves the villains of the series. Since Íñigo is able to mention that these people return, and that they offer challenging obstacles to Alatriste and himself, it makes the reader anticipate seeing them again. Gualterio Malatesta, the Italian assassin, Alquézar, the king’s private secretary, and Angélica de Alquézar (his daughter), whom Íñigo likens to the Devil despite her golden beauty (though he does say that he didn’t realize this about her until long after the events in the first novel), become larger figures because of his nostalgic descriptions and their peculiar quirks.
Something I found both amusing and a bit troublesome was that, when Íñigo talks about the political issues of the era, I kept comparing them to current events and thinking how similar they were. Whether or not Pérez-Reverte did that intentionally, or whether political issues during any era just happen to be remarkably similar, I couldn’t say. But that did give me something to think about.
Overall, I really liked this novel. There were some moments that felt slower than others, but I think that has less to do with the book itself and more to do with my reading at present. I like that the language is pretty straightforward while still having moments that make you pause and reread a passage because it was so GOOD. The characters really make the story (I look forward to seeing Malatesta again – he’s so obviously amoral), and I think Pérez-Reverte has done an excellent job of making each one very individual.