Translated by Margaret Peden. Set in the 1620s, this historical novel centers on the titular soldier, a melancholy man wounded in Flanders and now haunting Madrid as a sword for hire. Hired by two masked men, who are clearly powerful officials, with the backing of a much-feared Inquisitor, Alatriste is charged with killing two English travelers. Sensing something wrong, he lets them live, only to find out later it is the Duke of Buckingham and Prince Charles, attempting to secure the prince’s wedding to the Spanish infanta. This act of mercy puts Alatriste on many powerful people’s black lists, but he stays in Madrid, fatalistically waiting for whatever will befall.
This is an exquisitely realized novel, absolutely entertaining and very skillfully written. There’s little of the brutish, formulaic pabulum of the Sharpe novels here – Alatriste is no superman, and relies as much on luck and craft as his skill to live. This book is also at least as much about the Golden Age of Spain than about any one man: Francisco de Quevedo is Alatriste’s friend, and luminaries such as Lope de Vega and Diego Velasquez are mentioned frequently. Perez-Reverte’s narrator (a youth named Inigo, Alatriste’s de facto ward) ruminates on the state of 17th century Spain with all its corruption and dangers, on the festivities and attitudes of the time, on courage and honor, on what sort of man lived by the sword in those times. In short, there is as much historical as there is novel in this book, and both parts are equally enjoyable.