The story in this novel takes place in the 17th Century Spain during the reign of Philip IV, the golden age of Spanish power. The plot is based upon an actual historic occurrence in 1623 when the Prince of Wales (Charles Stuart) and George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, traveled incognito to Spain to try to reach agreement on the long-pending match between Charles and Infanta Maria Anna of Spain, the younger sister of King Philip IV. The fictional action of this book starts with its main character, Alatriste, being paid to kill a pair of unknown English visitors in Madrid who turn out to be the Prince and Villiers traveling incognito. Life becomes quite complicated for Alatriste when at the last minute he decides not to kill the two strangers, and suddenly the plotters of the scheme have every reason to want Alatriste dead because he knows about their conspiracy.
The characters in this story remind me of Dumas' Three Musketeers, but the book, Captain Alatriste, is much shorter and concise in its construction. The story takes place at about the same time as Dumas' novel, but of course Alatriste is Spanish and the Dumas characters were French. These characters are quite frankly not the sort of people I would want to be near in real life. They are professional soldiers waiting for the next war. In the meantime they have nothing better to do other than sit around in taverns waiting for the next excuse to fight a duel.
This novel is told in first person from the perspective of an old man recalling the story as it happened in his youth. He is thus able to offer some perspective and judgment based on the experience of the subsequent years. Here is a sample of how the golden age of Spain is described in the book: "And that infamous period was called the Siglo de Oro? What Golden Age, eh? The truth is that those of us who lived and suffered through it saw little gold and barely enough silver. Sterile sacrifice, glorious defeats, corruption, rogues, misery, and shame, that we had up to the eyebrows." ... "and no one worked except the wretched peasants, exploited by the tax collectors ..."
The narration paints a vivid and gritty picture of that time in history. Details from body lice to excrement in the streets are quite jarring to a 21st Century reader. The mechanics of killing, and being killed, with a sword are presumably accurate, but I'd just as soon not have to read about it. The author spends a lot of time describing 17th Century Madrid and quoting sonnets from the period.
By the time the novel is finished you will learn about the king's favored adviser, Olivares (Gaspar de Guzmán y Acevedo, 1st Count-Duke of Olivares, 1587-1645). According to the author he was an evil person. Historians have often blamed him for the demise of the Spanish power. However, modern historians generally believe he was simply following the King's wishes, and the prevailing corruption of the time was not something for which he can be blamed.
We also meet another "bad guy" in the person of the king's secretary Luis de Alquézar, and his entrancing niece Angélica de Alquézar (c.1611–c.1640). It's hinted in the book that we'll be hearing more about Angélica and her uncle in upcoming books in the series. We know that Angélica is a historical character because she was portrayed by Diego Velázquez in 1635. I presume her uncle is a historical character also, but I'm unable to confirm that. I wish the author had included a note commenting on which of the characters are historical personages.
I selected this book to check out whether I wanted to pursue the rest of the series. The books are translated from Spanish. The following is a list of the books in the series and the year published in USA:
1. Captain Alatriste, USA 2005
2. Purity of Blood, USA 2006
3. The Sun over Breda, USA 2007
4. The King's Gold, USA 2008
5. The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet
, USA 2009
6. Pirates of the Levant, USA 2010
A movie based on the series, titled Alatriste, was released in September 1, 2006, directed by Agustín Díaz Yanes and starring Viggo Mortensen. (The DVD is not yet released for North America.)
The series of books started when the author, Pérez-Reverte, decided that there was a lack of history of the Spanish Golden Age in the school textbook of his teenaged daughter Carlota. He commissioned Carlota to gather documentation for him (hence, she is billed as co-author of the first novel) and developed the stories. Pérez-Reverte is influenced by the works of many novelists, in particular 19th-century writers like Alexandre Dumas, and his D'Artagnan Romances. He also applies the dark tone of his experiences as a war reporter.
The period settings allows him to insert references to the authors (including Lope de Vega and Cervantes) and artists (including Diego Velázquez). He reflects on Spain and the Spaniards as a people united that, in spite of being at war with all the major European powers, are capable of showing bravery and honor.