Friday, March 30, 2007

The Sun Over Breda by Arturo Perez-Reverte

In the midst of the Dutch and Spanish dignitaries in the foreground of Diego Velázquez’s war tableau “The Surrender of Breda,” there is a small open space beneath one soldier’s horizontal weapon. It appears to depict the back of the soldier beside him. But it is the suggestion of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s latest installment in his grandly entertaining Captain Alatriste series that Alatriste, he of the cold gray-green eyes and dauntless courage, was once part of the picture — although his likeness has since been excised.

Was he painted by Velázquez? The claim that he was comes from no less an authority than Íñigo Balboa, Alatriste’s hero-worshiping young companion. Íñigo also claims to have described to Velázquez the visual details of the surrender. Mr. Pérez-Reverte has shaped his third Alatriste book, “The Sun Over Breda,” around this famous painting. In contrast to the more narrative-driven earlier books, “Captain Alatriste” and “Purity of Blood,” this one unfolds on Flemish battlefields rather than in Spain.

So most of the series’s usual, highly enjoyable villainy has been put aside. Enchanting characters like Angélica de Alquézar, she of the “blond corkscrew curls and eyes as blue as the sky over Madrid,” with “a smile identical to the devil’s when, through Eve’s intercession, he tempted Adam to sink his teeth into the fabled apple,” will have to wait until next time.

Although Íñigo’s narration occasionally recapitulates earlier plots (and flashes forward to the time when he is much older, remembering these glory days), the present book’s action is ferociously combative. Mr. Pérez-Reverte, who was once a war correspondent, pieces together the bloody events that led to the Breda surrender in 1625.
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