Book Review: The Fencing Master by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Fencing Master is something of a change of pace– historical fiction, and possibly even literary fiction. Gasp! And while it doesn’t have any spaceships or dragons, at least it has a couple of swordfights, as one would expect from a book called The Fencing Master.

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Set in Madrid, in the summer of 1868, The Fencing Master centers on Don Jaime, the titular aging master swordsman. He ekes out a living teaching fencing to an increasingly shrinking number of students; by the middle of the 19th century, fencing (and duelling) was rapidly on the decline with the rise of the industrial age.

Don Jaime is pretty much a classic Perez-Reverte character. He’s tragic and melancholy, an artifact of an earlier era, out of place in the modern world. And, like a classic Perez-Reverte character, he soon winds up embroiled in a twisty plot full of conspiracy and murder and all kinds of other fun stuff. Oh, and there’s a beautiful femme fatale, too, because it wouldn’t be a proper conspiracy without one.

While The Fencing Master certainly has the makings of a properly pulpy mystery, it never really coalesces into one. The book takes its sweet time in setting everything up, and the murder and conspiracy doesn’t really kick off until about two thirds into the book. On top of that, Don Jaime is somewhat of a passive character– he’s very reactive, and the whole conspiracy is out and out explained to him in the last chapter.

Part of the problem is that the plot is tied directly into the Glorious Revolution of 1868. Which is a subject I knew absolutely nothing about (heck, I had to do some digging around in wikipedia just now to find out what that was). Maybe The Fencing Master would be more interesting if I were a student of Spanish history, but Perez-Reverte manages to do a better job of laying out the importance of what’s going on in his Alatriste novels. Then again, I suppose it’s easier to describe something as “like The Three Musketeers, only with bigger mustaches” than it is to sum up the Glorious Revolution in a pithy line.

This isn’t to say it’s all historical politics. Perez-Reverte can write a properly swashbuckling sword fight– though the ones in The Fencing Master are a bit more technical than those of the Alatriste novels. I took all of a semester’s worth of fencing in college, but even then Perez-Reverte tosses in terms like “flanconnade.” I’m gonna have to remember that one for the next time I play scrabble.

To be honest, The Fencing Master isn’t the best Arturo Perez-Reverte. It’s not bad, it’s just kind of subdued and uneventful until the last quarter or so of the novel, when the swords come out. But hey, since a better chunk of the book centers around decline and decay (themes that are quite easy to compare to modern day), that just means it’s literature, right? None of that silly “genre” stuff!

Speaking of genres, I’m gonna read a couple of monster/horror/urban fantasy novels coming up for October, so stay tuned!

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