Accompanied by his faithful companion Inigo, the captain joins a Spanish galleon and sets sail from Naples towards the east on a journey that will take them to Melilla, Oran, and finally Malta where they must struggle against the Turk.
The previous Captain Alatriste novel (or the last one to be translated and released in the US) was titled THE CAVALIER IN THE YELLOW DOUBLET, and there you have it. “Cavalier” is one of those loaded words; it carries with it connotations of chivalry and swordplay and courtly love and roistering in the streets — and all of that was in there and more. This book is called PIRATES OF THE LEVANT, and if ever there was a loaded word, it is “pirates.” Shiver me timbers, lads, and point me to the buried treasure. Arrr.
Well, these aren’t those kind of pirates, you understand, and although Captain Alatriste is a soldier of fortune — and to make the pop culture reference, he would make a very fine Dread Pirate Roberts — he emphatically is not a pirate. The pirates are the enemies here, and fine stout foes they are, and it is Alatriste’s job to rob them of their plunder and make the waters of the wine-dark Mediterranean safe for the commerce of Spain and her allies.
Where PIRATES OF THE LEVANT differs from the rum-soaked tales of Caribbean piracy largely has to do with the types of ships that are used. The buccaneer ships were sailing ships, for the most part, depending on wind power and seamanship for propulsion. In the Mediterranean, though, the galley was used, and galleys are powered by sweaty, smelly slaves chained to their benches and straining their backs to haul the oars. It is this sort of ship that Alatriste and his ward Diego are assigned to, operating out of Naples, patrolling the seas to stop the pirate menace, whether it be English, Dutch, or the dreaded Moors. Dreaded, you see, because the wages of defeat to a Moorish vessel were no wages at all — the losers of any given battle ended up pulling oars for the victors.
The typical pacing that Arturo Perez-Reverte employs is used here, with long sections of exposition and poetic quotation punctuated by violent and colorful swordfights. But in PIRATES OF THE LEVANT, he expands his repertoire to include the naval battle, and aficionados of the genre should fall upon his work gratefully. An early cutting-out expedition against an English pirate stronghold is almost as good as anything Patrick O’Brian could do, and you can’t say fairer than that.
The other welcome development in PIRATES OF THE LEVANT is the change of scenery — well, perhaps not that so much as the characters who inhabit Alatriste’s Madrid do not come along, or only make cameo appearances. We are left instead to concentrate on Alatriste, who is essentially unchanged, and the narrator, young Diego, who is maturing, getting into trouble, and starting to chafe a bit under Alatriste’s leadership. Diego is somewhat problematic as a narrator. He’s overly florid at times, a bit too fond of quoting classical Spanish poetry at every conceivable occasion, and it just doesn’t seem possible that he could know so much about Alatriste’s mind in those scenes where he himself does not appear. But Diego as a character is a charming, engaging puppy, and Perez-Reverte lets him grow up a little and bark some.
PIRATES OF THE LEVANT does wander about the Mediterranean a little bit and stays too often in some uninteresting locales exploring subplots that at times don’t go much of anywhere. But it ends with a battle combining seamanship and defiance and sacrifice and no quarter given and no quarter taken. Doomed Spaniards fight renegade janissaries on wrecked galleys, as harquebusiers flare and steel glints against steel. Arrr. It’s a pirate’s life, fellow readers, a pirate’s life for me. Anyone who wants blood-soaked action and raw defiance against impossible odds should sign on, and quickly.