A swashbuckler with all its swash in place

Armada, by Charles Gidley. New York: Viking. 437 pp. $19.95. Historical lore has transmuted the disastrous voyage of the Spanish Armada from a Roman Catholic crusade in which politics and religious fervor were indistinguishable into a fiasco of stupid Spaniards versus canny Englishmen. In his newest novel, ``Armada,'' Charles Gidley puts the event in perspective - with verve. Though its action spans 30 years, ``Armada'' is fast-paced historical fiction, drawing one effortlessly through the web of controversies that tangled 16th-century Europe.

Essentially, ``Armada'' is the tale of two people: an Irish girl wed to a Portuguese nobleman, and a sailor, a captain's son, from Cornwall. Through them, Gidley unfolds the story of the Armada. Through them, he conveys the cruelty, the hypocrisy, the suffocating formality, and the claustrophobic atmosphere of life in a land dominated by the Inquisition. Through them, he brings home the tragedy of Spain and Portugal's ill-fated venture. He does not sink to contrived grittiness or unrestrained bloodletting. Thus, instances of violence retain their capacity to shock.

Gidley's prose is clean, clear, and readable, his descriptive passages good. ``What looked like a great floating city of castles, parapets and towers was silhouetted against the yellowing horizon,'' is how he writes of the first sighting of the Armada by the English fleet.

For landlubbers, his constant use of naval vocabulary can equal an impenetrable foreign dialect; a labeled diagram of a 16th-century ship would have been helpful. Also, he skims rather than penetrates the depths of melancholic gravity that pervaded Elizabethan England.

But ``Armada'' is replete with strengths, with petty and destructive cowardice, courageous and foolhardy heroics. It's a swashbuckler with all its swash in place. Errol Flynn would have loved it.

M. Melissa Pressley is a free-lance book reviewer.

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