|About the Book|
3.5 starsI have to admit to having been disappointed by the eponymous first book in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s ‘Captain Alatriste’ series of swashbuckling romances. It may have been due to unfair, or incorrect, expectations, but I remember being fairly nonplussed by my reaction. I love me a good swashbuckler, but despite this fact I have to admit that I find myself disappointed more often than not in the ones I pick up. Sabatini has one truly great entry in the genre that I have read (the superlative Scaramouche), but I have found myself distinctly underwhelmed by every other book by him that I have taken up…much to my chagrin. Doyles Brigadier Gerard stories are wonderful, but they are as much comedies as they are swashbucklers. I venerate Dumas père, but must admit that even his voluminous output has its ups and downs and contrary to popular belief I don’t think that most of his works should really be classified as true swashbucklers (though historical romance is such a close kissing cousin that they really ought to just get a room already). It was, therefore, with some trepidation that I took up volume two in the Alatriste series, _The Purity of Blood_. The meat of the story revolves around the titular ‘purity of blood’ that one must be able to prove (especially if you happen to have any Jewish descent in your family tree) in order to be considered an ‘Old Christian’ and the trouble (that’s putting it mildly) encountered by those conversos unable to do so to the satisfaction of the authorities, especially the infamous Inquisition. Alatriste and Íñigo get pulled into a plot that seems to be merely a family affair to begin with, until it becomes apparent that there are tendrils spilling out from it into much higher levels of society. Buckles are swashed, secrets revealed, and danger & death are always waiting in the wings. Through all of this Pérez-Reverte is able to bring into a swashbuckling adventure ruminations on the decay and hypocrisy inherent in the Spain of the ‘Golden Age’- a golden age that, not surprisingly, leaves quite a bit to be desired and, when seen face on, is neither better nor worse than any of mankind’s other blunders throughout history.I will admit to once again feeling more or less indifferent for much of the novel. All in all it was fairly good...an intriguing mystery setting things up on the first page and a fast paced adventure that was out of the gate with little to no preamble, but I was still not sufficiently grabbed by the adventure to feel myself sucked into the world Pérez-Reverte was creating. I know he’s capable of this as he’s done it to perfection for me in the more slower paced The Fencing Master and the intriguing occult-literary mystery The Club Dumas, but so far in his pure swashbucklers I am not always fully engaged. There were moments though. The conceit of the book is that it is a first person memoir being told by Íñigo Balboa, Alatriste’s ward and companion ever since the boy’s father, an old soldier buddy of Alatriste’s, died in the latter’s arms and asked him to care for his son (more on this anon). This conceit allows us to enter into Íñigo’s mind as his remembrances of his youth take on the bitter-sweet savour of a man looking back on his halcyon days from the vantage of old age. Two moments here struck me as particularly moving. In the first Íñigo recalls the vision of Angélica de Alquézar, the great love of his life- a love that is not without its own ambivalent qualities: At times, when memories seem so sweet that I long even for old enemies, I go and stand before the portrait Diego Velázquez painted of her, and stay for hours looking at her in silence, painfully aware that I never truly knew her. But along with the scars that she inflicted, my old heart still holds the conviction that that girl, that woman who inflicted upon me every evil she was capable of, also, in her way, loved me till the day she died. The second was in a moment of truth for Íñigo in which his mettle and devotion to his master are tested. In this moment he finds “…that there are some things no man can tolerate though it cost him his life or, precisely, because that life would not be worth living if he yielded.” I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that Íñigo proves himself worthy of the Captain’s respect and devotion.Despite these moments that allow Pérez-Reverte’s novel to be tinged with that golden glow of memory so often ascribed to the ‘Golden Age of Spain’ in which these adventures take place, the memoir format is not without its complications. The fact of the matter is that Íñigo spends a large portion of his time separated from the Captain (no need to go into details here, that really would be a spoiler) and yet we still get whole chapters told from the perspective of Alatriste without losing the assumption that ultimately it’s all coming from Íñigo’s mouth (or pen). I’m not normally a stickler for the whole “what is the conceit of how we received this narrative” thing (though it is becoming something I think about more) and usually just go with the flow, but it did grate a bit here for me. I can’t believe that the laconic Alatriste told Íñigo anything but the barest details of what he did while they were separated, yet we still get a view into not only Alatriste’s actions, but his thoughts and words as well (not to mention those of the various friends and enemies with whom he interacts). I liked those chapters just fine as third person narrative, but they didn’t really work for me as parts of Íñigo’s memoirs. That quibble aside I found that as the book neared its conclusion I was warming up to it much more than my experience in the first half would have suggested. I would still say, though, that this is in some ways a book that works less as a thoroughly rousing adventure in and of itself, but is rather a further set up for the long term adventures of Alatriste and Íñigo, especially in regards to the relationships they have both with each other and with those who will prove to be the greatest thorns in their sides. Alatriste has a great moment at the end of the book with his nemesis, the thoroughly evil (yet still interestingly complex) swordsman and assassin Gualterio Malatesta, while the aforementioned reasons for the complex feelings of Íñigo for the lovely and deadly Angélica de Alquézar get some page time as she is shown to play a small, though key, role in the stratagem that nearly proves to be the end of our two heroes. All in all I wasn’t completely swept away by this story, but it planted enough seeds that promise potential greatness that I am committed to following along with the adventures these two motley heroes for at least a little while more. I hope Pérez-Reverte proves to live up to the promise.