© 1998 Richard Howard
This is the second (of three) posts published during Read of England which have nothing to do with England. I’m trying to get them out of the way before the English stuff starts rolling in!
“‘We will win’, Bonaparte said. […] ‘Do you not feel it, Bessieres? Destiny. I know we will win as surely as if God Himself had told me.'”
France trembles on the edge of an abyss. Her society has been thrown into complete disarray by the mass violence of the revolution; a new cabal of rulers has merely replaced the Bourbons, both in power and in the contempt the public holds for them; and her armies are ever-smaller, penniless, and starving. Even the dregs of the prisons are being scraped up and put into service for the defense of the nation. But from Corsica comes a shot in the arm – a man who knows how to lead, and better still – how to win. With Bonaparte at the helm, and rapists and thieves in the ranks, the French army sets out to deliver a blow against the Hapsburgs in Italy. One man in Napoleon’s army, Alain Lausard, has lost everything to the ‘republic’ — and yet still he fights, and will make his mark.
Having greedily devoured so many tales of Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe, I was excited to learn of another series of Napoleonic fiction. This one has the added interest of telling the stories of the French cavalry, and author Richard Howard sweetens the pot by making his main characters a controversial bunch. They’re all prisoners; Lausard is merely a political captive, the last survivor of an aristocratic family butchered by the revolution – but among his new brothers in arms he can count criminals of far worse repute, and their infighting is constant. Howard takes us through their training before skirmishes with the Austrians erupt, and from there we hear rumors of a gold-laden baggage train that will keep Lausard and his men on the run even after they rout the Austrian army. It wasn’t until the ending, however – where one despicable act of treachery is gloriously turned against its Judas – that I really warmed to Lausard, whose personality is overwhelmed by his need to hide his aristocratic past from the rest of his troop. Lausard especially shines when his commanding officer is injured after one skirmish and replaced by a man so odious his name might as well be Frag-Me-Now. Rather than risk a court-martial by directly opposing him, Lausaurd broadcasts his contempt with veiled put-downs. Imagine an officer worse than Sir Henry Simmerson from the Sharpe movies.
Although I can’t continue in this series immediately (April being my month for English lit and history, after all), I look forward to the next book, which sees Napoleon invade Egypt.