A Swashbuckling Thriller

Back in my first semester at my university (don’t ask how many years ago), I took up fencing as a PE (phys ed) requirement, and for someone as “allergic” to sports as I am, I actually enjoyed the class and was passably competent at it.

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master (book 57 of 2009) appealed to me not only because I find his writing intelligent; I’ve also always found fencing terribly romantic — the proprietary rituals rooted in honor and courtesy; the graceful thrusts and parries combined with a dance of intricate footwork and sprightly movement; the melodic clink of meta foils; and the immense satisfaction of making contact.

In this mystery thriller, the fencing master is Jaime Astarloa, a distinguished gentleman who is a throwback to the olden days, even in 19th century Spain. He is the master of a dying art, upholding the virtues of honorable duel at a time when pistols were fast becoming the weapon of choice and fencing was evolving into a recreational sport.

Don Jaime lives off a modest income from his few remaining students, and leads a peaceful existence, engrossed in perfecting an irresistible sword thrust, until the fiery, violet-eyed Adela de Otero shows up on his doorstep and applies for his tutelage. Grudgingly, Don Jaime takes on his first female pupil, and gets more than he bargained for as he finds himself entangled in a grand web of intrigue and deceit, and he must rely on his old-fashioned values and the ancient art of fencing to keep himself alive.

At 212 pages, The Fencing Master is a fast read, a mix of rich, languid text; highly detailed swashbuckling sequences; and political discourse.

This is the third Arturo Perez-Reverte book I’ve read; I enjoyed The Club Dumas (on which the movie Ninth Gate — starring Johnny Depp — was based) and The Flanders Panel also. I like reading Perez-Reverte’s works because he writes with flowing, florid sentences that take you into the heart of the action. Perhaps this is the Spanish sensibility towards romance showing, similar to Carlos Ruiz Zafon‘s writing, albeit Zafon is the more lyrical of the two.

I also like how Perez-Reverte can write credibly about a variety of subjects — The Three Musketeers and De Umbrarum Regni Novem Portis in The Club Dumas; chess in The Flanders Panel; and fencing in this book, not to mention a host of other novels that carry other motifs. I appreciate the research he undertakes for each novel because they don’t appear halfhearted or contrived.

I love Don Jaime’s character — elegant, refined and upright, never compromising his values nor his genteel ways. I found it sad that he appeared to be born into the wrong era, with his dapper, turn-of-the-century suits; the old house adorned with dusty memorabilia; empty fencing gallery displaying rusty swords; and his passe art.

He laments:

“Duels with foils are rare events, given that the pistol is so much easier to handle and does not require such rigorous discipline. Fencing has become a frivolous pastime… Now they call it a sport, as if it were on par with performing gymnastics in your undershirt.

In this century and after a certain age, dying a proper death is becoming increasingly difficult.”

The hitch with reading Perez-Reverte’s novels in succession, though, is being able to detect a formula in his writing. He likes a lengthy exposition, peaking sharply and falling fast too. He also likes to gamble with shocking twists towards the resolution, which don’t always pay off.

Despite this drawback, I still find Perez-Reverte to be one of the better writers in the spectrum of multiple-book mystery writers. I still have a bunch of his books in my TBR, and I look forward to reading them in the future.

My copy: trade paperback, mooched from the UK

My rating: 4/5 stars

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later – no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn to forget – we will return.”

This is one of my favorite lines from the book The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which has definitely found its way into my heart — from cover to cover!

Set in the heart of post-war Barcelona, The Shadow of the Wind is an exquisite blend of elements I love in books: literary mystery, horror, romance, and even some swashbuckling action!

In The Shadow of the Wind, 10-year old Daniel Sempere‘s life is changed forever when his father, a bookseller, brings him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (“Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it…”).

In the tradition of this labyrinthine repository of obscure tomes, a first-time visitor must choose a book and take care of it forever, making sure it stays alive and never disappears. Daniel is immediately drawn to a handsome volume entitled “Shadow of the Wind,” by a little-known Spanish writer Julian Carax. The mysterious book sets off Daniel’s curiosity about Carax and he embarks on a quest to find out more about the author, whose life gets more and more entwined with Daniel’s as the story progresses.

The beautiful language is lush and wordy, rich with descriptions that just bloom with life — exactly the way I like it. And I like the fact that very few people (well outside of the FFP circle) have heard about it, and that it’s not that easy to find at the book store — it has this word of mouth success that doesn’t need the hype to make it a bestseller.

And the characters — they seemed to jump off the page. Fermin was my favorite — he had the best lines! I loved it when he said:

“Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually around the corner. Like a thief, like a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.”

I also felt really sad for the gay watchmaker Federico Flavia, who was persecuted for his flamboyant lifestyle. I like Daniel too, as a protagonist. He is young and impetuous, but is charming and believable, and I think I fell in love with him too.

I’d have loved to write a longer review, but it’s been around nine months since I read the book, and it’s due for a reread this year. But I would have to say that it’s one of the best novels I have ever read, and I loved every bit of it; reading it was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a book — I laughed and cried and seethed and shivered and gushed throughout it all, and I couldn’t put it down. Sigh.

I can’t wait for the prequel, Angel’s Game, due in September 2009.

My copy: Phoenix trade paperback, mooched from Triccie. I want a hardcover. And an illustrated edition.

My rating: 5/5 stars!