In The Club Dumas, Arturo Pérez-Reverte explored the labyrinthine world of antiquarian book dealers, spicing his tale of mystery and murder with characters straight out of Paradise Lost and The Three Musketeers. Next came The Flanders Panel, a brilliant puzzle comprised of art, chess, and untimely death whose resolution lies in a painting by a Flemish master. In The Seville Communion, Pérez-Reverte turned his sights on the tangled politics of the Roman Catholic Church as an appropriate backdrop--for murder. In his fourth novel translated into English, the Spanish writer changes centuries (if not his focus on homicide), returning to the mid-1800s to follow the exploits of Don Jaime Astarloa, the eponymous fencing master.
The year is 1866 and revolution is brewing in Spain. The corrupt Bourbon queen, Isabella II, is slowly losing her grip on power as equally corrupt exiled politicians vie to be her successor in a new republic. Against this background of political upheaval, Don Jaime goes about his business, teaching a dying art to a dwindling number of students. This is a man who resists changing times; to a friend he explains, "I have spent my whole life trying to preserve a certain idea of myself, and that is all. You have to cling to a set of values that do not depreciate with time. Everything else is the fashion of the moment, fleeting, mutable. In a word, nonsense." But then Adela de Otero--a woman with a mysterious past and an amazing talent for swordplay--comes into his life, and Don Jaime's world is turned upside down. As always, Pérez-Reverte offers literary excellence, a thumping good mystery, and fascinating insight into an arcane practice, in this case, fencing. Though the 19th-century politics in the book may resonate more with a Spanish audience than with English readers, the moral at the heart of The Fencing Master is universal: "to be honest, or at least honorable--anything, indeed, that has its roots in the word honor." In this, Don Jaime and Arturo Pérez-Reverte both succeed. --Alix Wilber