Don Jaime Astarloa is an anachronism and has lived his life in contented knowledge of the fact. He wishes to be left alone to complete his life's work: the pursuit of the perfect fencing thrust. The story takes place in an age of firearms, where chivalry by Don Astarloa's definition is dead, and the art he dedicated his life to is thought to be useless; merely a 'sport' for the rich. He's a stoic man, happily living in solitude and the security that the way he has lived his life means something; if only to himself. In his own words, "I have spent my whole life trying to preserve a certain idea of myself, and that is all. You have to cling to a set of values that do not depreciate with time. Everything else is fashion of the moment, fleeting, mutable. In a word, nonsense."
This is the first stand alone novel from Pérez-Reverte I've read. The setting is slightly more cosmopolitan and thus it is less of a character than in his Alatriste stories, rather the actual characters of the book take center stage. We see the routine of Astarloa's life and all that has made him comfortable as an older distinguished gentleman. He ages, with no regard to the world around him, content in his status. Until he takes his first female student, who demands to learn his 'two-hundred escudo thrust', captures his heart and then disappears after learning the current extent of his life's work with only the merest of goodbyes.
It is the beauty of the author's words, and not the plot that keeps you reading (the plot doesn't really solidify itself until rather late.) Pérez-Reverte takes his time letting us getting to know his characters, and if you--as the reader--pay enough attention all subtleties of the plot can be surmised. There is a certain elegance to his prose and unhurried grace to the pace of events. I read this book in Spanish, side-by-side, with the English translation, and while I don't think the translation is as well done as some of his Alatriste books (the repeated use of 'sangfroid' and an odd conversation question, "Do you know something?") it may be in part to the lack of florid language used in the latter historical setting.
There is a political revolution that takes place against the personal concerns of Don Astarloa who is presently teaching two students of astounding ability: one a aristocratic playboy, and the other Doña Adela de Otero who makes Astarloa question much of what he knows concerning life and fencing. In a very clever device the political subplot becomes entwined and eventually overcomes what ever we thought the book was to be about, and by the time it does Astarloa is caught in the middle as the body count rises and the cause of death of at least one is the 'two-hundred escudo' thrust making the possible list of suspect extraordinary small.
Perhaps the book can be called a mystery, among other things, as we aren't given much in terms 'who done it' or motive. I'll admit that I didn't even try to guess who was at the bottom of things, not because I couldn't discern the obvious, but rather I had too much fun reading word by word to even think about puzzling out the crimes.
Many writers have done a stoic, solitary character refusing their age and the world around them and painted the devil as a woman; few have done it this well. You'd be doing yourself a disservice reading it at the beach, or on the morning commute to work; take time to enjoy an 'ordinary' book done to the highest degree of quality. It's better than whatever is on TV, and you'll agree with me after reading it.