by Arturo Perez-Reverte
translated by Margaret Jull Costa
The fifth Captain Alatriste novel. The Captain and his young (but now rather handy with a blade) ward Inigo are in Madrid, walking a tightrope between their strict standards of honor and their rather lowly status among the pomp, poetry, and provocation of that city’s many cavaliers and officials. Alatriste begins an affair with a famous and beautiful actress, María Castro (whose husband serves as some sort of half-jocular, half-bitter pimp), but is warned to stay away, as her favors are being enjoyed by none other than the king himself. The Captain, of course, cannot be told what to do, and alienates friends and enemies alike by continuing to see the actress. This, unfortunately, makes him the perfect patsy for a plot against the royal wastrel – and when Alatriste’s old enemy, the Italian mercenary Malatesta, pops up, they both know one of them must die at the hands of the other.
This is a superb historical novel, perhaps the best in the series. The vanity of swordsmen for a decaying empire, duels over one wrong glance, strict adherence to considerations of honor, pageantry, assignations, plays, poets whose stars rise and fall at the whims of the court: this is Perez-Reverte’s 17th century Madrid, in all its gritty cinematic glory. The suspense is masterful, with Alatriste and Inigo both independently betrayed by their foolish pride or love, and racing, swords in hand, against a very short deadline separately but toward the same goal. Alatriste is not at all what the modern reader would think a hero – he’s a tired cynical old killer with no fear of death and his every action is mandated by his sense of pride and honor, not fairness or magnanimity – but he has a shred of sympathy for those over their heads and a few sparks of love in him, and that makes him a complex, fascinating figure. He’s the perfect centerpiece for these thrilling, swashbuckling adventures of a grittier, prouder time.