The fourth in Pérez-Reverte’s series of five historicals about the Spanish Captain Alatriste (The Sun Over Breda, 2007, etc.) is long on ambiance but short on plot.
It’s 1626 and Captain Alatriste and Íñigo Balboa are arriving back in Spain after fighting in Flanders. Alatriste is now middle-aged, still laconic and increasingly world-weary, but as deadly as ever in battle. Balboa has come of age and is a practiced swordsman himself, thanks to Alatriste’s tutelage. The Captain has been his surrogate father since his own father died on the battlefield. On reaching Seville, Alatriste receives a new assignment. The treasure fleet, bringing riches from the New World, is expected very soon. One galleon is carrying gold ingots in secret; the property of the Treasury is being unlawfully diverted. The court has gotten wind of the scheme, however; Alatriste must recruit a band of ruffians to retrieve the loot. That assault on the rogue galleon does not come until the end. In the interim the author shows us a corrupt society, awash in money, on “a slow road to nowhere.” Spain, heedless of its soldiers’ sacrifices, is “rarely a mother and more often a wicked stepmother.” Yet Alatriste and his young disciple are themselves incorruptible, believing in honor and unwavering allegiance to the king, a tension at the heart of the story. Balboa is also in love, bewitched by his contemporary Angélica, maid of honor to the Queen, a love which almost costs him his life during a dangerous nocturnal tryst. That scene, and another in which Alatriste scares a corrupt merchant half to death, constitute the only action before the climax, and it’s not enough. Just as disappointing is the author’s refusal to penetrate the “personal wilderness” of the brooding Alatriste, a failure that is not disguised by the quirky charm of the interpolated snatches of verse, some of them from the celebrated playwright Lope de Vega.
For all the author’s customary elegance, this is one of the weaker novels in the series.