Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review - True Soldier Gentlemen

A bit of fiction on the Rosbif bedside table. That's a first! (Actually, the last book I read was also fiction - the latest by Russian author, Boris Akunin, but as it doesn't fall within the purview of this blog, I didn't review it. Highly recommended, though!)

Adrian Goldsworthy is better known for his non-fiction histories of the Roman Empire. This is his first venture into fiction and I found I enjoyed it a lot, despite some minor reservations.

Historical fiction set in the armies of the Napoleonic period has left me cold after trying to read the Sharpe series (can any character be so 2 dimensionally heroic, while all other British officers are incompetent fops and Frenchmen impossibly evil?). I enjoyed Allan Mallinson's Hervey books, but they mainly took place in the period immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. Then of course, there are all the naval novels like Hornblower and the Aubrey/Maturin series and all their imitators, which I've enjoyed immensely. But the army-based novels of the period that I have enjoyed have been few.

The book is written in 2 parts; the first concentrates on the officers of the fictional 106th (Glamorganshire) Regiment of Foot in their preparation for war during the period immediately before the expedition to the Iberian Peninsula, while the second takes place in Portugal where the characters find out what they're made of as they enter battle for the first time.

A lot of the book is spent establishing characters and the world they live in, with a lot of descriptions of training and barracks life. There is a brief interlude of Austen-ish manners and feminine charm with the introduction of the Captain's wife and daughter, and the establishment of rivalries and enmities that drive the narrative and look like continuing in further volumes of the series.

The battle scenes are described with brutal honesty, with the descriptions of waiting for a French artillery volley particularly gripping. The way the author describes the battles runs the gamut from the macro- to the micro-view; from the generals on both sides down to the British subaltern characters. I'm not sure if this works very well, as I'm never very happy when real life personalities are given the fictional treatment, but that's my personal taste.

The weakest part of the story, in my view, was the minor plot line of a vicious Russian (yes, Russian!)officer, who was out to regain his fortune that he'd gambled away in St. Petersburg, by snatching a treasure hoard that he'd found out about from the Portuguese whore with the heart of gold whom the British subalterns had sworn to protect and to reclaim the treasure for. The Russian was supposedly the Tsar's liaison between the French army and the Russian fleet, but did precious little except twirl his moustache and torture Portuguese. That he got his come-uppance so quickly left me thinking that surely there could have been a better plot device than him.

The strength of the book is the description of the world of the British Army subaltern and the battles they fought in, rather than characterisation. Hopefully the following volumes of the series will have more character development with the surviving characters becoming more rounded and believable figures and the plot a little more credible. Possibly the sheer number of characters in this book led to the dilution of characterisation. The next installment is called Beat the Drums Slowly and is set during the Retreat to Corunna. The main characters seem to be the newly minted Ensign Williams, who has risen from being a gentleman volunteer to subaltern in the aftermath of the Battles of Rolica and Vimiero, and his love interest, the Major's (previously Captain's) daughter, Jane McAndrews.

I'll be coming back for the next installment, so stay tuned for the review. Hopefully it'll be in Rosbif's Christmas stocking this year!


  1. Thanks for the review. I too have stayed away from these type of books mainly based on my Sharpe experience. Some other periods have gotten quality historical fiction treatment, so it would be nice if our favorite era received the same. :)


  2. Nice review, I'll look out for this one for sure!

  3. I appreciate the review. I'm a follower and fan of the "Ancient" Goldsworthy but wasn't sure about dipping my toe in this Napoleonic venture. I think that I'll give a try

  4. Interesting - I enjoyed Sharpe greatly when I was younger and I've grown less impressed with them as I get older. Mallinson and O'Brian are very different kettles of fish.

    I think you've just sold a book Rosbif


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