Arturo Perez-Reverte,
Captain Alatriste
(G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005)

Arturo Perez-Reverte, a present-day Spaniard from Madrid, steps back in time to the Madrid of the 1600s. His internationally famed book, Captain Alatriste, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, is a tale about an ex-soldier, Diego Alatriste, and his uneasy existence on the edge of poverty. He becomes a swordsman for hire, but one with scruples, as he is wont to say. Diego has more scruples than he can afford, but he is lucky to have friends and a fair-to middling resume.

A plot comes to light. Two English travelers of high estate are the targets of Diego's employer. It is almost the worst situation the soldier has faced in a lifetime of hornets' nests. On the fringes of his mind, Diego can see the judges of the Inquisition in their black robes and masks. Why would these powerful men give poor Diego a second glance with Madrid filled with aristocrats and intellectuals to persecute? He is not even a real captain, though he has led men and shown a leader's courage.

This fascinating tale starts out slowly, but it picks up speed like a train on a downgrade -- once the historical details are in place and the characters introduced. Suddenly, the train is zooming around hairpin curves and zipping through tunnels. Poor Diego, he is in mortal danger almost from the first page. It is more than a reader could hope for -- such suspense and a man who looks more like a hero with every chapter.

I loved this book by one of my favorite authors. This is a must-read. It has a distinct period flavor, a simmering broth of things to come and some rattling good villains, readily recognizable by black clothing, and in one case, black fingernails. I suspect that Perez-Reverte had a good time assembling this show. It is, in a way that matters, an old hero story made new with fresh costumes and newly painted sets.

I am itching with impatience to read the next four books. Book Two, Purity of Blood, has just been released. Look later this year for the movie Captain Alatriste with Viggo Mortensen as the captain.

by Jean Marchand
18 February 2006

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