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En Garde! 

Swashbuckling hero hits US shores

If swashbuckling hero d'Artagnan had a brooding Spanish cousin, he would, no doubt, be Diego Alatriste. Arturo Pérez-Reverte, best known for his best-selling historical thrillers, has, at last, published an English translation of Captain Alatriste, the first in a five-volume series chronicling the adventures of a swordsman-for-hire in 17th Century Spain. In the author's native Spain, the series has sold more than four million copies, led to walking tours for enamored fans, and even put the title character on a postage stamp.

Told from the vantage point of 13-year-old Iñigo Balboa, the son of a fallen comrade whom Alatriste has adopted, the adventures begin soon after Alatriste leaves debtors' prison.

Soon, an unusually generous job, proferred by the town constable, entails stabbing two apparently anonymous travelers in the middle of the night.

As with each Pérez-Reverte outing (The Club Dumas, The Flanders Panel), plot twists and shifting political fortunes soon enter the fray. A powerful priest involved in the Spanish Inquisition intercedes, ups the mercenary fee, and instructs Alatriste and a mysterious gun-for-hire to kill, rather than injure, the travelers.

Pérez-Reverte is masterful in capturing Madrid in the 1620s. The narrow alleyways, ubiquitous brothels and gambling dens provide stark contrast with teeming public theaters and immaculate royal palaces. By using a narrator who recounts events witnessed as an alternately savvy and naïve adolescent, Pérez-Reverte strikes a satisfying balance. A typical example occurs when young Balboa assists Alatriste in defending himself against an ambush:

I aimed, holding the pistol with both hands. But I was trembling so hard that the second shot went wild, and this time the recoil knocked me backward to the ground. As I fell, my eyes dazzled by the flash, I had a second's glimpse of two men with swords and daggers, and of Captain Alatriste, sword flashing, battling like a demon.

With Viggo Mortensen and Gael Garcia Bernal set to star in a movie version in 2006, the Alatriste tales seem to be in good hands. The other four books in the series will be published in English during the next four years; Pérez-Reverte plans on penning two additional titles to complete his chronicle.

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