16 February, 2011

Rebellion, by James McGee. Book review

Harper Collins, 2011. ISBN 978-0-00-732024-0. 529 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

This historical thriller is set in London and Paris in the autumn of 1812, during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. The central character, Matthew Hawkwood, is fictional. Important secondary characters such as Eugene Vidocq (founder of the French Surete police force), Colquhoun Grant (British intelligence officer) and the main players in the attempted 1812 Paris coup are historical figures.

Ex-soldier and Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood is as tough as they come and no stranger to intrigue and danger. When he is seconded to a mysterious department of the Home Office and sent on a clandestine mission to France, Hawkwood knows it will probably take all his experience and nerve to survive, let alone carry out his mission (when he finally finds out what it is – the secrecy is such that even Hawkwood is not told before setting off). Shipwreck on the French coast is just the start of his troubles, as he is drawn into a deadly conspiracy. Success could bring down Napoleon and end the war – but failure risks taking Hawkwood and his colleagues to the guillotine….

Rebellion is Book 4 in the Hawkwood series. I haven’t read Books 1-3, so I have no idea how Rebellion compares. It seemed to me to work as a stand-alone, although there may be subtleties relating to the previous books that I missed. The central character, Matthew Hawkwood, is a sort of early eighteenth-century James Bond (in Bond’s more macho incarnations; think Sean Connery rather than Roger Moore). Part soldier, part secret policeman, part spy, he is a tough, violent man in a tough, violent world. Hawkwood also has brains as well as brawn, which is just as well as the central conspiracy – an attempted coup d’etat against Napoleon – is a lot heavier on political intrigue than on action.

The first part of Rebellion is suitably action-packed, with a chase sequence through the hills of Portugal and then a stormy Channel crossing. The shift between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is something of a jolt, and on first reading I found it hard to make any sense of (it turns out to be a cunning piece of authorial sleight of hand, explained about 100 pages later). After this adventurous beginning, the middle third of the book was a startling change of pace, slowing right down to provide a lengthy history lesson in conversation form as various characters explain the intricate ins and outs of French civilian and military politics to each other. This background is interesting stuff in its own right, and essential to follow what’s going on when the action starts up again, but readers who like their thrillers to be full of thrills and spills every few pages may find this section rather slow going. The pace starts to pick up again from about page 350 on, as the conspiracy and its aftermath play out.

I found Rebellion to be distinctly un-gripping. This surprised me, given the subject matter. The stakes could hardly be higher, and although I knew the outcome of the coup in advance (as, I am sure, does every reader the moment they look at the date), the how and why, not to mention the fate of the fictional characters, should offer plenty of scope for suspense. Perhaps it was because Hawkwood seemed to walk in to a ready-made conspiracy without actually having to do very much. The plotters have already made their plans and decided on their actions, and events are already in motion by the time Hawkwood appears on the scene. He just lends a bit of moral support and a helping hand, rather than driving events. As a result, Hawkwood is something of an outsider to the central plot, and I think this contributes to the uninvolving feel of the narrative. On the plus side, it’s a fast and easy read.

For me, the most appealing aspect of Rebellion was the presence of the historical figures Colquhoun Grant and Eugene Vidocq. Like Admiral Cochrane, these two men led lives more extraordinary than anything a novelist would dare to make up. Grant was one of Wellington’s Exploring Officers in the Peninsular War, riding reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines. Captured in Portugal, he escaped from custody and then promptly bluffed his way to Paris, where he established himself in the disguise of an American officer and proceeded to spy for British intelligence. Vidocq started out as a thug in the French criminal underworld, before going on to found the French Surete Nationale and then a private detective agency – a case of setting a thief to catch a thief if ever there was one. Beside these two colourful characters, everyone else in the novel rather fades into the background.

The attempted coup of 1812 really did happen, and many of its leading figures appear in Rebellion (Google if you want a potted history). Like Grant and Vidocq, the coup looks like a case of truth being stranger than fiction. Whether it contributed as much to undermining Napoleon as claimed in the novel, it can hardly have helped the Emperor’s cause, and it was fascinating to see the political side of the Napoleonic Wars as a change from the naval and military settings familiar in many historical novels. There is no Author’s Note in the advance review copy, and I hope there is one in the finished version. It would be most interesting to see how much of the conspiracy is fact and how much fiction (I suspect all the most unlikely elements are factual).

Political intrigue in Paris, as disaffected military officers attempt a coup d’etat against Napoleon in 1812.


Melissa Romo said...

Thanks for this review. I like all things Parisian and am strangely attracted to military history, something I'm still trying to sort out about myself! Anyway, I may page through this, thought it's a shame it's not more gripping.

Carla said...

Hello Melissa and welcome. The book draws a memorable picture of Paris in the depths of the Napoleonic wars. If you read it, I'll be interested in your thoughts.

Annis said...

Thanks for the review, Carla. I'll definitely be reading this one, as I enjoyed the others in this series.

Hawkwood reminds me of Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe as well, possibly because he's dark, dangerous and a former sharpshooter with the Ninety-Fifth "Rifles"! In the first book or two he even has a Harper-like mate, though they drift apart in civilian life.

Carla said...

Glad to see you here, Annis! My best wishes to you and yours.

I'll be interested in your thoughts about this one, having read the others in the series. I expect there were all sorts of references that I didn't pick up. Given Sharpe's popularity, there's a logic in giving Hawkwood some of the same characteristics.... The Harper-like mate gets a mention in Rebellion, but only in passing.