Monday, March 06, 2006

Perez-Reverte: Captain Alatriste

Following on to the last post, allow me to observe that we usually like books that make us feel smart. We like the mystery novel that we solve just before the detective does (although we don't like solving it too early, or we spend the novel wondering why a detective character we are told is smart has such a bad case of the stupids). We like the book that explains a difficult concept clearly, making us feel good about our ability to comprehend the subject. And we like the books that refer to other books, films, historical events, or cultural phenomena that we recognize, particularly if they're obscure. Hey, who doesn't like to get the trivia answers right?

All this is by way of giving a caveat to my review of Captain Alatriste: I am predisposed to like it because I figured out a big secret of the book before I'd even opened it. The back cover tells us that Alatriste, a Spanish sword-for-hire in seventeenth-century Madrid, is given a commission to rob and frighten two travelers in the city, a commission that is almost immediately emended to include the assassination of the two. Thanks to a really good history class in college, I guessed who the intended victims were before I'd cracked the binding.

That ambush happens about a third of the way in, and after that, the action of the book slows down remarkably. The narrator, Alatriste's young apprentice (for lack of a better term), spends a lot of time foreshadowing future conflicts with other characters and lamenting the passing of Spain's glory. I assume actual Spanish literature from the 17th century is written in this style, although I haven't read any, but it made the pacing uneven. Captain Alatriste is the first in a series of books about the swordfighters and adventurers of Spain at this time, and the parallels to Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers books are overt. Perez-Reverte, who obviously enjoys Dumas, even directly refers to an event in the Three Musketeers at one point, and the book's last scene, an inteview between Alatriste and an oh-so-important statesman, has clear echoes with the final meeting between Richelieu and D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers.

When this book gets back to swashing and buckling, it does so gloriously. I could wish, though, for fewer apostrophes on the narrator's part to Spain, Fate, Fortune, the girl he has a crush on (who is the niece of one of Alatriste's enemies), etc. Captain Alatriste wasn't released in an English translation until last December; the second book in the series came out a month later. I'll pick it up sometime this month and report back to you all on whether or not it speeds things along any.

For the recipe of the week, I'm going to refer back to one I already posted: Rachael Ray's Veal Ragu. Ground veal is not in my budget most of the time, so I have modified this by using a pound of sausage (I used plain old breakfast sausage; you could use Italian sausage if you want--the kind that comes in the plastic tube). I omitted the olive oil--she browns meat in oil a lot, and it certainly speeds up the process. I don't want the extra fat so I omit it, although I then can't usually make the meal in 30 minutes. I have to say I liked this even better with the sausage than with the veal, and it's certainly cheaper and easier to find.

Got a comment about Perez-Reverte? The comments section has been deafeningly silent recently. . . .