Monday, February 22, 2010


Give me a story featuring some number of the following: capes, large hats, swordplay, misunderstood heros, sailing ships, Caribbean settings, villains, damsels, trysts, derring-do...well, to sum it up, give me a swashbuckler and I am lost. Gone, gone, gone. Plots differ, characters have different names, settings change but the effect on me is always the same: enjoyment.

Dumas, Sabatini, Stevenson - these are the giants of the genre. And if we are contemplating a Mt. Rushmore of swashbuckle (or even just a roadside museum), I want to add Arturo-Perez Reverte to the gallery.

Perez-Reverte is a Spanish author, mostly known for intelligent, even erudite thrillers including The Seville Communion, The Nautical Chart, and Queen of the South. In his books, the streams of history and contemporary life merge together and the reader is swept along for the ride.

Perhaps as a diversion, or simply an excuse to play with another genre, Perez-Reverte has also written a series of books featuring Captain Diego Alatriste, a veteran of seventeenth century Spanish military actions, compelled to earn his living by hiring  out his experience and swordsmanship - a kind of seventeenth century private detective or armed security guard. The books are narrated by his squire, Inigo Balboa y Aguirrethe son of a comrade in arms, who begins the series as a young teenager and grows older and more experienced, if not always wiser, with each succeeding book. Inigo is writing these books when he is at an advanced age himself, looking back on his youth and the escapades, and lessons, that Alatriste and his contemporaries taught him.

The writing is terse, dramatic, and effective. Action scenes, and they are many, are cinematic in effect. As I read I want to reach for a bag of popcorn and some raisenettes.  There are swordfights, dramatic rescues and escapes, ships, ambushes, assignations - it is all there.

I was at first attracted to these books because of the adventure and action and I was unprepared for how good the books are in other more important ways. There is much Spanish history explained or revealed, and much world history of the seventeenth century as understood from the Spanish perspective. In these stories the Caribbean sea trade, the wars in Holland, the battles with England, the Church and the Inquisition, and Spanish and European royalty are all familiar but are presented with a distinct Spanish interpretation that is a refreshing change for this English-speaking (and Anglo-centered) reader. This interpretation is critical and honest, but with a view of the world from the Iberian peninsula that we do not get from reading most English-language authors.

Captain Alatriste himself is a complex character whose personal history and worldview are gradually revealed through the series. He is a good man, and a natural leader, who lives by his own code of honor, one that is not going to advance his financial or social standing. Inigo is an impressive narrator. As an old man, putting these adventures down on paper, he allows himself to perceive the action and characters from his own youthful, inexpereinced perspective. As he grows older, his observations of Alatriste and society grow with him so that reading through the series adds layers of understanding and appreciation to the reader as it does, undcoubtedly, to Inigo himself.

The English translation  is elegant, terse, and dramatic. I can only imagine that the writing is even more satisfying in the original Spanish. Perez-Reverte takes the opportunity in the telling of these stories to insert references to and quotes from Spanish literature of the period including Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and other lesser-known writers.  In The Sun Over Breda, Captain Alatriste himself appears in Velaszquez' painting Surrender at Breda and I found myself scouring an image of the painting to identify just what the captain looked like! References to Spanish literature, art and music are abundant. The stories also provide lessons in Spanish geography and the diversity in its regions, cities, and people.

A caveat: David, who introduced me to these books, warned me that there are few, if any, significant female characters and he is correct. Those who are featured are really stock characters. In fact, there are really only two characters who are fully developed: Alatriste and Inigo. Many others are well-drawn and memorable but of little real concern to the reader. This is their story. And Spain's, of course.

And for swashbucklers? Why do I read them and like them so much? Let me share with you the preface to The King's Gold, the fourth book in the Captain Alatriste series:

                                         What do we gain from it all? A little glory?
                                         Some rich rewards, or merely boredom?
                                         You'll find out if you read our story.

                                  Garcilaso De La Vega (16th century Spanish soldier and poet)

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