Captain Alatriste by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
Swashbuckling: check. Historic setting: check. Mysterious, dangerous villains: check. Semi-tragic, poorly-understood hero: check. Innocent lackey narrator: check. Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s Captain Alatriste impressively manages to combine all these factors while simultaneously evoking Alexandre Dumas, plunging his readers into an forgotten-by-fiction historic period, and maintaining his excellent prose. Now if only the sum of these parts had been a little more exciting.
Alatriste is the first in a series of stories about the adventures of the titular Captain Alatriste and his lackey, Íñigo. Alatriste is an honorable man fallen on hard times after being discharged from the army, so he often becomes a sword-for-hire. But, of course, he does this while maintaining a vague sense of integrity. In this first book, for example, Alatriste is hired by three masked, powerful men to rough up and then kill two traveling Englishmen whose identities are not revealed to him. He agrees, but then cannot go through with the deed when the second Englishman begs for mercy for his friend rather than for himself. Surely, Alatriste decides, a person with such a reaction in the face of certain death should not be snuffed out. Unsurprisingly, Alatriste’s masked employers are angry at his inexplicable change of heart (particularly when the identities of the Englishmen are revealed) and turn the assassins on Alatriste. A calm sort of plodding chaos ensues.
And that is the main issue I had with Alatriste: everything that happens is high drama and high adventure, but everything is also written in an inappropriately calm tone. Never did my heart beat faster nor did I ever particularly worry about anything bad happening. And bad things do happen, of course, but never once did I become remotely agitated to find out if things would be okay.
That isn’t to say that Pérez-Reverte is a bad writer. On the contrary, his prose is beautiful and descriptive. This rarely-explored time period in Spain’s history absolutely came alive under his pen, but, again, not in a thrilling way. He is a calm writer, rather than an adventuresome one, and this style does not work particularly well with the subject matter of Alatriste. Strangely, this is not a problem I encountered in his The Club Dumas (which was very suspenseful and exciting), so perhaps he was purposefully writing Alatriste in this more leisurely tone.
Whatever the reasons, Alatriste suffered for it. I had hoped that this book would be the beginning of an exciting new series for me to read, but after finishing it I find I have no curiosity to read the others and only a vague interest in seeing the film version. (This in spite of the Viggo Mortensen factor!) Alatriste is a perfectly okay book, but I would still take Johnston McCulley’s, Raphael Sabatini’s, or Baroness Orczy’s style of adventure over Pérez-Reverte’s any day.