Thursday, 15 December 2011

Adventures of Captain Alatriste by Pérez-Reverte

For a few years now, I've enjoyed Pérez-Reverte's Alatriste novels at a suitable pace so as not to catch up with his writing speed too quickly. Unfortunately, the author has been writing the latest additions to the series with three year gaps, and my hunger for the period is too great for me to delay that long.

The series is a must-read for any fan of the musketeer period (early 17th century). The hero of the series is a Spanish soldier-of-fortune, Alatriste, affectionately titled captain. He is rather a stubborn and coarse man with a noble soul. The novels in the series are more or less separate stand-alone stories, told from the point of view of Íñigo Balboa, Captain Alatriste's apprentice, who grows up from a young boy into a young man over the course of the series. As the teller of the stories is Balboa at his old age, many of the early novels in the series are told in a retrospective tone and they are almost wistfully nostalgic in their style. For the first three books, Balboa is a young boy, looking at most of the events from outside, which effectively distances the reader from the story and the characters.

In the fourth novel and especially in the fifth, The Man in the Yellow Doublet, the style is becoming more approachable as Balboa has grown up into a young man and is finally somewhat proactive in the stories. At the same time, the stories themselves are becoming more coherent and instead of mere wistful memories, Balboa is relating us his and Alatriste's actual adventures.

On the other hand, some of the wistfulness is still very much present. The fifth novel still begins very slowly as Pérez-Reverte repeats the basic premise of the series. He basically uses the first 40-50 pages to tell us about how Spain was falling from grace during the time depicted, alongside some reminiscing about the theatre scene in Madrid and some bashing of Shakespeare's art. Having read this same premise in various forms in the earlier four books in the series, I was almost put off by this section. But when the story finally picks up, and does so satisfactorily strongly, the fifth novel in the series ends up being the best book thus far.

Balboa's voice still tends to remove us from the story now and then by jumping ahead in time and telling us about future events (such as the oft-repeated details of Alatriste's death sometime in the future). In the fifth book, this tendency is at a more tolerable level than it was in the first four, but it is still there. As this style of storytelling distances the reader from the events and the characters, it is something that I wish would be downplayed even more in future additions to the series.

However, despite these few failings, Pérez-Reverte's Alatriste novels still offer one of the rare opportunities to delve ourselves into the fascinating world of the early 17th century, where rapiers still had two edges and lives were as cheap as bad wine. It is a world I would gladly have more opportunities to read about, especially when written by such talented writers as Pérez-Reverte.

I've got the sixth novel of the series, Pirates of the Levant, waiting on my shelf, but it is a pleasure that I will delay a bit longer.