If any country continues to clothe itself in the cloak of its history, it is Spain. Gloriously proud of their short-lived arc as a world power following Spain's conquest of the New World, Spaniards are at the same time defensive of the aristocratic excesses of their blue-blooded imperials. Out of this dichotomy, Arturo PŽrez-Reverte has fashioned a hero as fine and tempered as the blade of Toledo steel he has mastered Captain Diego Alatriste, swordsman for hire.

PŽrez-Reverte's reputation as a writer who seamlessly blends intellectual stimulation with breathless action was richly burnished with his last novel, The Queen of the South. In Captain Alatriste, which is the first of a series written years ago and now being released in English, the author visits an era when the glitter of New World gold masks a terrible truth Imperial Spain is corrupt and dying. Dukes and counts jockey for a playboy king's favor, common Spaniards live on centavos and the Grand Inquisition still casts its fanatic shadow over them all. Woven through the book is a sense of desperation, of time slipping away as Spain squanders her fortune and her soldiers.

Amid the intrigue and betrayal, Diego Alatriste clings to the triple truths that govern a Spanish caballero's life: honor, courage and friendship. Wounded during the Thirty Years' War, Alatriste hires out his blade and raises the son of a dead comrade. Accepting a contract to waylay two English travelers, Alatriste's refusal to butcher a courageous man sends ripples through the Spanish court, the Inquisition and the English monarchy. Suspenseful and literate, Captain Alatriste is a novel to be savored, and Alatriste himself is a man to be admired, but from a distance, lest the steel in his blade and his soul prove too high a standard. He is not just a hero he is all that Spain aspired to be, and, for too brief a time, might have been. Jorge Antonio Renaud writes from Texas.

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