Captain Alatriste, the first of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s series of novels about a skilled but cynical swordsman, appeared in English translation in 2005. In that work Alatriste’s young Basque servant, Íñigo Balboa, introduced the captain and a small circle of friends and told a story of swordsmanship and intrigue in seventeenth century Spain. Readers learned that Alatriste was wounded during what would become known as the Thirty Years War, that his old comrades had bestowed the unofficial title “captain” upon him as a tribute to his bravery, and that subsequently he was forced to ply his sword for a living. Narrated from the apparent twilight of Íñigo’s own years, the novel suggested a string of adventures yet to come. The first such sequel, Purity of Blood, takes up where Captain Alatriste left off, with Íñigo casting several backward glances at his earlier story and looking teasingly ahead. Among several continuing motifs, Íñigo’s foolish infatuation with the beautiful Angélica de Alquézar now assumes nearly fatal proportions.
The captain’s new adventure opens on a day of bullfights in the Spanish capital of Madrid. Adding to the excitement is a grisly discovery. The corpse of a strangled woman has been found in a sedan chair before a church, her hand clutching a bag of coins to pay, says a cryptic note, for masses for her soul. Alatriste and Íñigo learn the particulars of the affair from chief constable Martín Saldaña, who had served with Alatriste in the war but who clearly disapproves of his old comrade’s means of livelihood.
This initial mystery remains in abeyance as Alatriste is approached after the bullfight by his old friend, the poet Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas. Quevedo, it seems, has a favora very dangerous favorto ask of Alatriste, for Quevedo owes a favor to one Don Vicente de la Cruz and his family. “It will involve swordplay, I imagine,” sighs the resigned captain.
In a subsequent scene, Don Vicente explains that his virtuous daughter Elvira is imprisoned in La Adoración, a convent run for his own lascivious purposes by the depraved Fray Juan Coroado and a band of sycophants. Elvira’s family has protested in vain over her situation, but they dare not press the issue further, as the purity of their blood is questionable. In other words, an ancestor was a Jewish convert, or converso, to Christianity, and thus the family could be targeted by the Catholic Church’s dread Inquisition. De la Cruz goes on to explain that Elvira had been accompanied to the convent by a duenna, an elderly companion whom he had thought he could trust, but who, as he reluctantly and delicately puts it, has since “disappeared.” It seems that the mystery of the corpse in the sedan chair has been solved.
Against his better judgment, Alatriste joins Quevedo, de la Cruz, and the latter’s two sons in a late-night raid on the convent. As readers may anticipate, the raid goes badly. After Íñigo slips over a wall to unlock a gate, de la Cruz and his younger son die in an ambush. Although Alatriste and Quevedo escape after a fierce struggle, Íñigo is captured. In a chilling series of passages, the boy is transported in chains by an archrival of Alatriste, the sinister Italian swordsman Gualterio Malatesta, to the city of Toledo and handed over to the Inquisition. As Alatriste and Quevedo subsequently learn, the de la Cruz family has been under surveillance by the Inquisition, which has targeted not only Coroado but also his protector, one of the most powerful political figures in the kingdom of Spain.
Pérez-Reverte is not only a novelist but also a teacher eager to acquaint (or in the case of Spaniards, reacquaint) his readers with the intricacies of his country’s violent history....
(The entire section is 1560 words.)