Saturday, February 17, 2007

Captain Alatriste, pt. 1

by Arturo Perez-Reverte
pgs. 1-70

I haven't read a good action novel in a while. A few days ago I decided I wanted to read something that would send a rush of blood through my veins and make my lungs burn as I held my breath. Because Jack reacher never fails to leave me with an anxious heartbeat, I thought I would be best served by picking up Lee Child's The Hard Way. But as I browsed my shelf, attempting to make a decision, Captain Alatriste kept whispering my name. So, I drew it out, stuck a bookmark in it and hoped I wasn't making a decision I would regret. I offer my assurances, here and now, I don't.

"Cling, clang; greetings and godspeed," will be a good way, I think, to summarize Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste. It's dark, it's dangerous, and it's full of cloaked characters engaged in swordplay. Yet, to call this book a swashbuckler would be a vast understatement. It is set in seventeenth-century Spain and it does involve swordplay but "swashbuckler" - at least in my understanding of the term - in no way hints at the creepy suspense or the dark shadows, the damp streets, and the shadowy characters that populate well-written Spanish historical adventure novels. "Swashbuckling" is too cheery a term to apply to something written in the same vein as the dark and dangerous Alexandre Dumas stories, Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers, which are nothing like their various romanticized Hollywood treatments.

Atmosphere, including the characters, is everything in a novel such as this and Perez-Reverte does it brilliantly: "In one corner of the room stood a man muffled in a black cape; a wide-brimmed hat of the same color covered his head...The only signs of life visible between the cape and the hat were dark, gleaming eyes, which the candlelight picked out among the shadows, lending their owner and menacing and ghostly air." Doesn't a passage like that just make you sigh with unadulterated pleasure?

And oh! It reads like a serial. Like most modern readers I suspect, I tend to sneer at obvious page-turner attempts. It can turn reading into an exercise akin to watching soap operas and I hate soap operas. But Perez-Reverte is a skilled enough writer to know that, by including sentences at the end of the chapter - sentences you know that, in an earlier day and age would have been followed by the words "To be continued" - adds to the atmosphere and further entrenches the reader into seventeenth century Spain. And it's hard not to love a chapter that ends with: "And I was left standing in the middle of the street, enslaved by love, watching that girl who to me was a blonde angel. Poor fool that I was, oblivious of the fact that I had just met my sweetest, most dangerous, and mortal enemy."

Luckily for me, I'm not a seventeenth-century reader and Captain Alatriste isn't an actual serial but a novel. That's one of the many wonders of this modern day and age - instant gratification.