Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Sun over Breda by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

The third book in the Captain Alatriste series is every bit as gripping and compelling as the first two with one small difference: it's not a book about the adventures of Captain Alatriste.

This is the first story in the series to take place outside of Spain, and while I did miss the TLC given to the Spanish setting, it was a welcome change. Pérez-Reverte has a great story about the Spanish siege and victory at Breda and he then proceeded to drop his pre established characters into a setting in which they didn't belong. It was a very inorganic reading experience. There's nothing that binds this book to the Alatriste series. As previously said, it doesn't take place in Spain, previous key characters--Angélica, Bocanegra, Malatesta--don't make an appearance and all that has been built upon for the past two books is set aside. So if we don't get a Captain Alatriste book, when what is in between the covers?

An excellent story.

The book deals with military life of the most basic Spanish infantrymen; the best soldiers in Europe at the time. If you've ever read an action adventure book about soldiers in seventeenth-century the only thing new The Sun over Breda will offer is Pérez-Reverte's beautiful prose. He is florid as hell without feeling affected and equally maintains a gritty realism of events while making even the most terrible things sound so damn pretty. The man can flat out write. His language is as impressive as ever and his artistic flair for this time period is so good that I want to read some of his contemporary fiction to see if it holds up as well.

There are more military and historical digressions than any anecdote that hinges upon the characters. The central conflict is robbed of some of it's power as the presentation of the entire series is written as Îñigo's memoir. We know not only the outcome of the siege as it's been hinted at in previous entries, but we also know Alatriste nor Îñigo dies here. The conflict in The Sun over Breda isn't as personal as we are used to seeing Alatriste involoved in rather, all he is doing in this book is for King and country. (A fact that further distances this entry from the rest of the series as Alatriste's actions are usually very mercenary.) While characters are fighting for their lives, they are indifferent if not apathetic to the cause, (at least as much apathy one can express while fighting to stay alive) which to a degree trickles down to the reader.

The appendix with it's small bit of faux scholarship concerning Diego Valåzquez's painting of the same name was my favorite part. I wouldn't be surprised if Pérez-Reverte wrote a story about an inconsequential character in a painting he liked and the result was this book, if not the whole series.

While it strikes me as a poor Alatriste book, Pérez-Reverte craftsmanship in storytelling and words-man-ship are as good as ever. His prose is beautiful and his command of a scene is outright visual. Some books in a series feel like place holders, and drag insufferably; that's not the case here. All the Alatriste books are self-contained, but The Sun over Breda certainly didn't contribute to the established narrative. To say the book drags (drug?) would be a terrible falsehood. It's an excellent book, I only wish it wasn't shoehorned into the Captain Alatriste arc.


Anonymous said...

I haven't read this one (I haven't read the Alatriste books in order). You make it sound intriguing. I wonder if he wrote it around the same time he was writing Painter of Battles. It sounds like there is some resonance between the two works.


Chad Hull said...

I haven't read Painter of Battles, but I'm a believer in Pérez-Reverte; his whole backlog is on my TBR list.