The siege of the Dutch city of Breda in the late-16th century near the end of the Hundred Years’ War is the subject of this third installment in Pérez-Reverte’s five-volume saga.
As in its predecessors (Captain Alatriste, 2005, etc.), Íñigo Balboa, teenaged servant and battlefield companion to the eponymous Captain, narrates a tale of violent action and courage under fire engaging enough to have flowed from the pen of another Dumas. At its outset, the adventurous pair have joined Spanish infantry troops fighting in Flanders to wrest possession of a thriving (and strategically located metropolis) from the “heretic” (i.e., Calvinist) Dutch and their allies, and bring it under the control of Spain’s Catholic King Philip II. After a lively beginning, the narrative sputters, as the weight of its author’s obviously considerable research permits Íñigo to overindulge in expository detailing of military, political and religious particulars. Fortunately, his is an energetic intellect, and—like Thomas Berger’s “Little Big Man” Jack Crabb—Íñigo eavesdrops on great men’s doings, and makes his own modest marks on history, first by helping future playwright Calderón de la Barca rescue endangered books from a burning library, later by providing painter Diego Velázquez with information crucial to the creation of the latter’s masterpiece The Surrender of Breda. The author neatly sidesteps redundancies implicit in successive descriptions of not dissimilar battles by focusing on such unconventional matters as burgeoning discontent (and near “mutiny”) among exhausted and unpaid soldiers, a Dutch “challenge” which leads to an episode of “five against five” combat and, through Íñigo’s adoring yet sharp eyes, a powerful indirect characterization of his cynical, war-weary Captain (“sickened with pain and blood”). And there’s some delightful metafictional misdirection in a pair of sly appendices.
Don’t miss the exciting conclusions.