Book Review: ‘A Free Man of Color’ – Barbara Hambly

Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read a historical novel set in pre-Civil War New Orleans and especially not one set in the early 1830’s.  Benjamin January is a free black man returning to New Orleans after sixteen years in Paris.  The laws of New Orleans prevent him practising medicine, hence he earns his living as a musician and music teacher.  Hambly paints a detailed and absorbing picture of Creole society at a point of transition.  While the atmosphere and attitude of much of the city is still French, American influence is growing.  January knows that as a free man of colour, his word will still (mostly) be taken seriously by Creoles in New Orleans.  Outside the city though things are different.  Along the bayous plantations are springing up run by newcomers from Kentucky and Georgia – people for whom the concept of a free black man is a contradiction in terms.A Free Man of Color (Benjamin January)

A murder at a Mardi Gras ball drops January unwillingly into a world of glittering decadence, demi monde and deceit.  The last person known to have seen the murdered Angelique Crozat alive he must find her real killer before the New Orleans Creole elite pin the murder on him.  Hambly packs an immense amount of detail into the book – I personally enjoyed it but I could see less patient people growing weary with the scene-setting and skimming forward to get to the action.  My personal advice would be to stick with it – the story takes a while to get going but when it does  you will find it very hard indeed to put down.

Alternative History Book Review – ‘Never Call Retreat’ (Gingrich and Forstchen))

In this book, the authors’ epic reworking of the 1863 Gettysburg Campaign is brought to an enthralling and highly believable conclusion.  One of the standard criticisms of alternate history is something along the lines of  ‘Why bother with this stuff when there’s so much real histtory out there?’  The answer to that one is that the best alternate history reads like it really could have happened that way. The protagonists’ choices are those that were open to their real-life selves.  This book certainly hits the spot in that department.  In fact, at various points I had to remind myself that I was reading an alternate history novel and not a novelisation of actual events.

They key points to remember are that Lincoln is determined to preserve the Union and Lee realises that only by forcing Lincoln to discuss terms will the Confederacy gain its independence.  This was the mindset of both men in reality too and this gives an added level of realism to the writing.  In addition the industrial and economic scales are weighted massively against the Confederacy.  The Army of Northern Virginia hasn’t impacted Northern industrial capacity, which is still churning out the material needed to keep the Union armies in the field.  Lee must somehow push his increasingly exhausted men to greater and greater efforts, since deep down, he knows that this campaign will decide the war.  The action is fast-paced, but with enough tactical detail to please the most demanding Civil War fan.

The Battle of Gunpowder River and the Confederate occupation of Baltimore have brought victory no nearer for Lee.  As the book gets underway, he is horrified to learn that Grant’s newly formed and equipped Army of the Susquehanna is advancing down the Cumberland valley, protected by a strong and effective cavalry screen.  In the meantime, a smaller Union force under the command of Darius Couch is approaching Baltimore.  If Grant cuts Lee’s line of retreat back to Virginia then Lee will have to fight him on his terms, not Lee’s.  The strategic importance of the town of Frederick soon becomes apparent to both sides and the armies start to converge.  Expect to see familiar faces (for instance one George Armstrong Custer) in unfamiliar situations and yet responding to then as per their historical selves.

Critics of this book (indeed of the whole trilogy) are fond of saying that it’s no fun, because the Confederacy still loses.  Sure, there are some scenarios in which the South could have won the Civil War – but not this one.  (Try Bevin Alexander’s book ‘How the South could have won the Civil War‘ for some more plausible chances for a Confederate victory).  Just because Lee’s boys don’t storm the Washington earthworks, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t credible alternative history.

I’m not going to include any more spoilers about the end of this, except to say that if this had happened in reality the post-war reconstruction would have been very different.  A great conclusion and one which makes this trilogy a must for both the serious alt hist fan and the Civil War student looking for something different.Never Call Retreat: Lee and Grant: The Final Victory

Alternate History Book Review: Grant Comes East (Gingrich and Forstchen)

Cover of "Grant Comes East"

Cover of Grant Comes East

In all fairness I have to start this review with a spoiler alert.  If you haven’t read the preceeding book by these authors (‘Gettysburg‘) then I strongly urge you to so, since ‘Grant Comes East‘ picks up more or less where ‘Gettysburg’ stops.  Still here?  OK – my first comment on this book is how well the authors have managed the departure from ‘our’ timeline and the skill with which they use the best rules of counterfactual history to drive the plot.  In ‘Gettysburg’, Lee comments that the Army of Northern Virginia has one good fight left in it and I soon found myself wondering in the aftermath of the Battle of Union Mills if was all downhill from here on.  The Army of the Potomac is wrecked – only one corps of it has escaped more or less intact and the remainder has routed towards Washington.  Rioting in New York against the draft is spiralling out of control.  Despite all that, the Union hasn’t folded up – mostly because Lincoln has decided it isn’t going to.

General Grant, fresh from his capture of Vickburg, is bringing his army east.  Lincoln has put him in charge of ending the war and Grant, in his careful methodical fashion is determined to do exactly that.  Gingrich and Forstchen also make it clear exactly where the real strength of the Union lies – its economic power.  Within weeks of Union Mills, Union railroad boss Herman Haupt can have the equipment for a new army made and stockpiled.  Lee’s ragged veterans can’t access that sort of logistical muscle and deep down the leaders of the Confederacy know it.  The invasion of the North was a gamble, one which must now be played out to the bitter end.

What makes this book such an enthralling read is that the authors understand how to write good counterfactual history.  People make choices based on the range of options that were open to them at the time and this makes for realistic character development.  There is no deus ex machina to give the Confederacy a deadly new advantage and they remain on the back foot logistically, just as they did in reality.  In the end, Lee is faced with a difficult choice.  Confederate President Jefferson Davis has sent General Beauregard’s corps north to bolster Lee’s men.  Should Lee use them to capture lightly-defended Baltimore (thereby removing Maryland from the war)?  Or ought he to accept that that is simply putting off the inevitable end game – an assault on Washington?

Either way, time is running out.

Alternate History Book Review: Gettysburg (Gingrich and Forstchen)

Cover of "Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civi...

Cover of Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War

If any of you have watched the 1990’s film ‘Gettysburg‘ you may remember the part where (on the evening of 1 July 1863) General Longstreet tries to persuade General Lee to break off the direct assault at Gettysburg and instead try to get round the Union flank.  Lee of course says something to the effect of ‘the enemy is there General and that’s where I’m going to attack’.   The result of Lee’s belief that the Army of Northern Virginia could do anything is well documented enough for me to skip over it here.  Could it all have gone differently?  Alternate history writers have produced a range of responses – some good, others pretty mediocre.

This book (a collaboration between Newt Gingrich and William Fortschen) is probably one of the best.  As with all the best alternate history writing it looks at the courses of action actually open to the participants at the time.  Gingrich and Fortschen know their stuff – the characters of the main protagonists are well developed, as are those of individual soldiers.  What I especially liked about this book was how well the point of departure was handled.  In reality of course the Union reserve artillery didn’t make it on to the field until the second day – here we have their commander Henry Hunt pushing several batteries forward in time to completely shatter the Confederate attempt to take the cemetery on the afternoon of 1 July.  This, in conjunction with Ewell‘s failure to take Culp’s Hill. leaves Lee more susceptible to Longstreet’s counter-proposal than he was in reality.

At this point the authors show their skill – Lee was by nature a gambler and they paint his reaction to Longstreet’s proposal quite credibly.  Lee rejects Longstreet’s plan as too cautious and, to put it mildly, widens its scope.  The stage is set for a campaign of manoevre, one which allows Lee’s troops to do what they do best – outmarch and outsmart  the opposition.  Any further detail would give the game away – so I’m going to close by giving this book a full five stars and say that it’s the first of a trilogy, the remainder of which I’ll review in due course.