There are some good moments in this sprawling historical fiction work, but it also contains some distracting quirkiness that keeps it from greatness. The time frame is the early 18th Century as the War of Spanish Succession picks up steam and draws all of the European powers to battlefields in the Iberian Peninsula. Protagonist Marti Zuviria is a fledgling military engineer drawn into the conflict by his nationality (Catalan) and his impeccable training credentials (with French Field Marshall Vauban). The story enfolds in retrospect as 98-year old Zuviria dictates his memoirs (a la Salieri in Amadeus) with melancholy and sadness. And, in fact, it is a story of the few short years that the engineer spent in training and as a feckless, job-changing mercenary in Spain and Catalonia. Secondarily--and quite intentionally--the novel sets forth a list of Catalonia's historic complaints against the Spanish-speaking parts of Spain that are meant to resonate contemporarily.
The book's greatest strengths are its deeply researched, detailed account of the siege warfare employed against those Spanish/Catalonian cities loyal to the pretender Carlos III (and the Austrians) and the host of richly drawn characters that Zuviria interacts with throughout the period. In the latter context, it is a kind of coming of age for the young engineer who is in continuous pursuit of a mystical engineering concept that will give some definitive meaning to his training and relationship with the formidable Marquis de Vauban.
The reader would be hard put to find another book with as much detail and fine feel for what is endured by either side during the siege of a city. These are experiences deeply embedded within the experience of the Iberians; and this author, Albert Sanchez Pinol, is passionate on the hardships and lethal effects visited on civilians and field troops alike in such conflict. The mud, blood and destruction is vividly portrayed here and well contrasted with the cynicism and lack of personal involvement by the powers who are behind the war in the first place.
Protagonist Zuviria is, like Salieri his historic contemporary, not a wholly sympathetic character, but he does evolve as a human being as the story unwinds, and ultimately, I wanted to hear more about his very long life (the book ends when he is about 24 and on the run.)
An interesting historic novel which will be entertaining for any fan of the military history genre.