S'Blood, tis perilous times for a man to keep tryst with a lady. If proper care isn't maintained, why you could find four feet of the finest Toledo steel has given you a button hole in both the fore and aft of your doublet. While tis true that Madrid under the most blessed Catholic rule of King Philip IV is known to be home to some of the most hot tempered, proud, and boastful rouges in all of Christendom, a man might reasonably expect to make his way to the warm succour offered by his current paramour's arms without worrying that behind each shadow lurks his untimely demise.
Yet when Diego Alatriste, known far and wide by his honorific, Captain Alatriste, sets forth to meet with Maria de Castro, the most beautiful woman to trod the boards of theatres in any country, his sword and dagger are brought into play in order to chase off two ruffians. Now it's widely known that Senora de Castro not only routinely cuckolds her husband, although whispers say he accepts bags of coin in exchange for her favours, she is wont to have more than one gallant "paying" homage to her beauty at any one time. So the good Captain assumes the ruffians attempting to separate. him, his body, and his soul from this mortal coil were merely those hired by one of La Castro's many other suitors blinded by rage, envy, and spite who believed his own path to her delights would be smoother without another already in position.
Alas, if the matter were only so simple for the Captain that having dispatched those two in the shadows of Madrid's night shrouded streets, he could have continued on enjoying the affections of this truly beautiful woman until she bored of his attentions. However as we continue to peruse the pages of The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet, from the noble pen of Arturo Perez-Reverte being published on this forthcoming eighth day of September in the year 2009 by Penguin Canada, we will see the matter is not as cut and dried as thrusts and parries exchanged in the night either by a man and a woman or two men with forged and tapered lengths of steel.
For while it is one thing to compete with one's fellow man for the affections of a lady, no matter how base or noble her birth, it is another matter all together to vie with God's anointed majesty Philip IV. Where his noble father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were known for their empire building, a sign of Spain's faded glory is that the current Philip is best known for his love of hunting both in the fields by day and bedrooms by night. Alas for Spain, for although to all outward appearances nothing may seem amiss, this king's willingness to put much of the running of the country into the hands of others while his hands are busy elsewhere has weakened her terribly.
Even sixteen year old Inigo Balboa Aguirre, Alatriste's ward and our sometime narrator, whose loyalty to his king and country is unquestioned, can not help but commenting on how the king's failure to attend to matters of state himself has left many another man's pockets filled with gold, the county's coffers barren, and the course Spain pilots through international waters threatening to cast her upon the shoals along side the wrecks of many a lesser country. In fact it is the job of one of the king's closest companions and advisors to ensure his most Catholic Majesty's path to pleasure and sport is cleared of any obstructions that might interfere with his success.
It is this same gentleman, the Count of Gaudalmedina, who discreetly tries to warn Alatriste of the danger he runs by daring to compete with the king for the same woman. However, this being Spain as recreated by Perez-Reverte, plots hatch quicker then chicks from a hen's eggs. Spain in the seventeenth century is a dangerous place even for those God has set higher than the commonality, and there's always a faction looking to find a way to increase their power at the point of a sword even if it means regicide. What better way to throw the scent off the real criminals then to make Philip's death appear to be the work of a lover whose affections were overthrown by a beautiful woman so that she could dally with the King instead?
However, not even the Count is able to see through the mists of deception that hang over Madrid this season. For although word has reached his ear of a plot against the King, he is of course not privy to the form or shape it would take. For how could anyone, unless gifted with an ability to peek through the curtain of time, been able to foretell what was in store for all concerned. Plots using beautiful women as bait succeed where others might fail, for the principles, blinded to their surroundings. are lucky to even see the sword that impales them .
The Cavalier In The Yellow Doublet is the fifth recounting of the adventures of Captain Alatriste to be translated from the tongue of Kings into heretical English, but even this can do nothing to diminish the shining light that is the talent of Aturo Perez-Reverte. While in the hands of some lesser writers the protagonist of a series of books may start to take on mythic qualities, the Captain's metamorphosis takes a far different direction.
Honour and pride, virtues in some instances, can also prove ones undoing, especially when combined with a streak of stubbornness which prevents a man from retreating from an untenable position. Unfortunately sometimes a man is placed in circumstance where his choices are take away from him, and in those instances his darker side is revealed. When wine and anger form an unholy alliance in Alatriste's woe be any who happen to catch his eye in the wrong way, or even by chance, as he proves when he casually picks a fight with a lout in a bar and with equal casualness runs steel through his heart.
True the fates had made it seem like his friends had all turned against him, and he was being denied what little joy he could get from life by the very person, the King, for whom he had risked his life time and time again in battle fields across Europe and the allies of Madrid. To be so discarded, and thought so little of must have galled a man of such pride, but to go out and commit murder because of it - well that paints a picture of a man inside whom dark forces are at work. Who knows what awaits our Captain in the future, only God and Arturo Perez-Reverte know for sure, but one thing is definite, neither redemption nor peace will ever come easily for one such as he.
Deftly written, with pinches of humour and snatches or ribald poetry scattered throughout to lighten some of the darkness, Perez-Reverte, continues the adventures of Captain Alatriste and Inigo with his usual aplomb and skill. As is usual half the fun are his descriptions of life in Madrid in the waning days of Spain's imperial might. However, like Alatriste himself, when it's time to get down to the business at hand he once again proves there is no one cooler under fire. His plots, while complicated are never convoluted, and we walk down the same paths as his characters only hoping to find our way out in time to save our necks.
For those who have grown tired of the romantic view of history so common in fiction, these books are the perfect antidote as Perez-Reverte does not shirk from showing the foul with the sweet. Very little separates the heroes and the villains in these books in terms of character and motivation save for the side on which they are fighting. While we may be on the side of Alatriste and Inigo, that's only because they are telling us the story - who knows what we'd feel if we heard the same tale from the other side of the table? There's nothing cut and dried about these books, and that's what makes them invaluable. Once you've read one, you'll want to read them all, and then impatiently wait for more.
(Originally posted September 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.