THE FENCING MASTER by Arturo Pérez-Reverte


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Another colorful novel of intrigue from accomplished Spanish author Perez-Reverte (The Seville Communion, 1998, etc.). The setting is Madrid in 1868: a time of political unrest as self-indulgent Queen Isabelle II’s hold on the throne grows shaky and numerous anti-royalist and revolutionary groups jostle for advantage. At the same time, tradition reposes serenely in the virtually cloistered life of the suave Don Jaime Astarloa, an aging “fencing master” who supports himself by teaching his art to Madrid’s nobility while planning his treatise on “the unstoppable thrust”—to be written as soon as he develops and masters this ultimate skill. A cryptic prefatory flash-forward is followed by some rather turgid (flatly translated?) exposition before Perez-Reverte efficiently places Don Jaime at the center of an exfoliating chain of intrigue whose individual developments are keyed to fencing moves and terms (“The Short Lunge,” “Glissade,” etc.). A beautiful young woman, Adela de Otero, persuades the initially reluctant master to tutor her and proves surprisingly worthy—in crisp, witty scenes charged with erotic tension. A marquis to whom Don Jaime introduces her is murdered under circumstances that point to Adela (who has inconveniently vanished); and a mutilated corpse that appears to be hers is dredged up from a river. A Javert-like police chief (Campillo) and a luckless journalist (Carceles) become involved, and signs both of a plot against the throne and of a murderous double agent deepen Don Jaime’s panic and confusion (amusingly counterpointed by the “eternal polemics” exchanged among his cronies at the ironically named Cafe Progreso). A climactic surprise meeting concludes with the master’s serendipitous performance of that “perfect thrust”—at a decidedly opportune moment. Not quite equal to PÇrez-Reverte’s very best, though it succeeds admirably both as a vivid picture of an unfamiliar culture and as high, sophisticated entertainment.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-15-100181-2
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999


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