By Richard Howard
Howard, Richard. Bonaparte's Warriors. London: Little, Brown, 2000. 314 pages. ISBN# 0316850535. Hardcover. £15.99
Bonaparte's Warriors is the fourth book in the "Bonaparte" series, the previous volumes being Bonaparte's Sons, set in the Italian Campaign, Bonaparte's Invaders, taking place during the Egyptian Campaign, and Bonaparte's Conquerors, in the Marengo campaign. Each of these chronicles the adventures of Alain Lausard, a sergeant in the French dragoons. In a conscious reversal of the formula followed in Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" series, Lausard is a former aristocrat who had turned thief in order to survive the ravages of the Revolution. "Dragooned" out of prison with a rag-tag group of fellow inmates -thieves, murderers and rapists-Lausard and company are trained as cavalrymen and sent to reinforce Napoleon's army in Italy. Lausard's squadron includes a motley gang of former prisoners and outcasts: Bonet, the former schoolteacher; Giresse, the horse thief and ladies man; Delacor, the rapist; Roussard, the forger; Rostov, the Russian; Karim, the former Mameluke slave; the religious fanatic, Moreau; and others. This cast of characters has remained fairly constant throughout the series.
Bonaparte's Warriors opens with the dragoons enjoying an uneasy peace and Lausard chafing from inactivity in the camp at Boulogne. He and his hard-bitten band of former prisoners are given, by Napoleon himself, a special assignment: penetrate neutral territory and kidnap the ci-devant Bourbon prince, the duc d'Enghien. Completing their task our merry band of what Wellington would have called the "scum of the earth" kick their heels in Paris until war inevitably breaks out. Lausard and the French army march against Austria and Russia and the book culminates with the battle of Austerlitz.
Richard Howard manages to work many military details into his stories, from the number of paces per minute the infantry marches to a detailed description of a cavalryman's tack. The artillery doesn't just fire canister shot, it fires "four-and-a-half-ounce balls." This exposition of military detail is, however, not always accomplished seamlessly. The author emphasizes the hardships and brutality of war, but perhaps to too great a degree. No one just dies in one of Howard's novels, they are ground under horses' hooves, smashed in the mouth with teeth flying by heavy cavalry swords, or turned into pulp by grape and canister. By over-emphasizing the violence and brutality, yet having the brutality occur to the novel's anonymous cannon fodder, Howard dehumanizes the suffering more than he shines a spotlight on it. One of Howard's weaknesses is that he seems so enamored of his cast of characters that he is loath to kill any of them off. This immortality amid the horrors of war lessens the impact of the battle scenes. We know Lausard will survive to fight another battle, but by making all the characters seemingly invulnerable there is little tension as to who will survive by the novel's end.
In fact the lack of fully delineated secondary characters such as those with which Cornwell peopled his "Sharpe" series is a definite weakness. There is no Harper. Lausard has no love interests. There is no villain running through the series or even for each individual volume. The only other fully developed character in these books is Napoleon himself. Howard does a creditable job reflecting the ambiguities of Napoleon's soldiers toward their emperor. Grumbling on campaign and at peace, yet awed in his presence. Even the cynical Lausard can't help crying "Vive l'Empereur!" when Napoleon rallies his troops. Howard's Napoleon is a flesh and blood creature, not a "marble man." Yet I can't help thinking that the many episodes in the book with Napoleon would be better spent developing Lausard. The frequent scenes with Napoleon explaining his actions to his staff may be a short-handed way of filling in historical background, but ultimately Howard would be better of having this background revealed through the thoughts and actions of his protagonist.
Lausard has none of the motivations to rise through the ranks as Sharpe had and I wouldn't be surprised if Lausard remains a sergeant to the bitter end. Cornwell always managed to set a goal for Sharpe in each of his stories; Howard is content to just let his hero be pulled along on Napoleon's coattails, going from historic event to historic event like a tourist. Lausard's sole motivation is to expiate his supposed sin of letting his family die on the guillotine, not having taken action to save them or dying himself. But Howard doesn't dwell much on the psychology of his hero; he seems content telling a fast-paced tale of adventure.
These criticisms aside, Howard has produced a series which affords the reader a quick, night or two read, but with little substance. These books are perfect to take to the beach or to read on a plane trip. Even the knowledgeable reader can more than likely enjoy the rousing action if he can refrain from nit-picking the military details. While the Alain Lausard books are not up to the level of Fraser's "Flashman" series (the ne plus ultra of these types of novels) or even of the "Sharpe" series, they do make for a quick, entertaining read.
Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
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