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Review of Purity of Blood
Swashbuckling in Spain’s Golden Age
Arturo Perez-Reverte provides a thrilling adventure set amid the grandeur and terror of the Spanish Inquisition.
The novel has the advantages of having an exciting plot and interesting characters as well as being a researched piece of historical fiction, true to the era it represents in both its romantic and gritty qualities.
Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition
The story is related by a boy named Balboa, who is a servant and student under the veteran turned mercenary Diego Alatriste. Against his better judgment, Alatriste agrees to help Vincente de la Cruz rescue his daughter from a convent where, allegedly, women are being sexually abused. During the rescue, it becomes evident the mission is a trap, and while Alatriste escapes, Balboa falls into the hands of the conspirators.
Vincente’s political adversary, the Royal Secretary Alquazar, and Malatesta, an Italian mercenary with a vendetta against Alatriste, are out to destroy their rivals, so Balboa is sent to before the Inquisition. Vincente was of Jewish origin and considered a traitor, making Balboa a traitor, too, in the eyes of the religious authorities. Alatriste, meanwhile, is hunted through Madrid while piecing together the nature of the conspiracy until he realizes that Balboa is being held as a means to draw him into a fight he cannot win.
Alatriste calls in favors and strikes dubious bargains with manipulative nobles in an attempt to get Balboa freed from the death sentence. He also enters into bloody combat with Malatesta, who prefers the direct methods of swords and knives to the convoluted machinations of his allies. Ultimately, Balboa is saved by Alatriste’s bargaining and blackmail concerning the hidden Jewish lineage of Alquezar.
Captain Alatriste’s Madrid
While the air of danger, the brutal swordplay, and dense conspiracy are all excellent, the best reason to read the novel is the completeness of the setting. Madrid in the era of early colonial expansion comes alive and is virtually its own character in the novel. Balboa’s frequent narrative asides provide a historical richness into the time and mindset of the people that inhabit it even if they do not always advance the plot.
Likewise, Balboa and Alatriste are complex and intriguing characters. At thirteen, Balboa’s thoughts and feeling are those of a young man of any era, making him a reasonable narrator and observer of the complicated world around him. Alatriste—a wounded veteran—is fascinating because of his contradictions. He is both a stoic humanist and a killer for hire who is in constant combat between his honorable and violent sides.
Possibly Alatriste’s best character moment comes when he tracks down the injured Malatesta and, discovering how similar he and the Italian killer are in terms of the lives they lead, chooses to let the man live. He knows if the situation was reversed Malatesta would have murdered him without a second thought; the act of sparing a life is what sets Alatriste apart from the Italian, no matter how similar they appear on the surface.
The Golden Age of Adventure
Purity of Blood is an excellent novel in terms of adventure writing in the tradition of Alexander Dumas. While some names and historical events may be confusing for readers without any knowledge of Spanish or Spanish history, most of the basic information is explained in the text without having to consult a history book. Perez-Reverte may take some asides, but his prose is sharp, so they story always feels like it is moving even if they reader is not sure to where.
Perez-Reverte, Arturo. Purity of Blood. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2006.
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© 2010 Seth Tomko