Book Reviews, Literary

Review: A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA, by Paul Park

<a href="">A Princess of Roumania</a> Book Cover
A Princess of Roumania Fiction Macmillan 368

Raised by her adoptive family in a quiet Massachusetts town, teenager Miranda Popescu is astonished to discover that she is a princess from an alternate world that is split by a deadly political battle.

You know, it’s called fantasy literature for a reason. And let’s face it…you do it too. Everyone does, and maybe adopted children do it more than anyone else. What if your parents weren’t your parents, what if your homeland wasn’t your homeland, what if you were born to be a princess ruling a far away land somewhere in your imagination? You need not have spent a lot of your life trying to get through wardrobes to get to Narnia — or down rabbit holes to get to Wonderland, or pick your fantasy of choice — to understand the appeal of A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA.

The real world in which we live (unless you’re reading this on a broadband hookup from Oz) can be a dark, difficult and dangerous place. Although fantasy worlds can be dark and difficult at times, they’re largely meant to be escapist and fun. What author Paul Park has done in A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA is to make things in the alternate fantasy world darker, more dangerous, and much less fun — to the point where characters in the fantasy world tend to see our reality as their fantasy.

In the fantasy world of A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA, the sixteenth century isn’t dead, or else it has been going on for a very long time. America is still a trackless wilderness, populated by its native people and a few brave English and Dutch colonists. The kingdom of Roumania is under the thumb of its German occupiers. Meanwhile, the disinherited Baroness Ceausescu — once the leading lady of the stage, now the penniless widow of an alchemist — plots her return to power. And the way to get power is to gain control over the rightful heiress to the throne.

Meanwhile, the rightful heiress to the throne is in high school in the Massachusetts that you and I know, hanging out with friends, exploring the woods around her home, and, from time to time, looking at the mysterious artifacts she has had all her life. Miranda Popescu is a normal teenager of Romanian descent, adopted out of a Romanian orphanage shortly after the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (And yes, there is a connection.) She has only vague unanswered questions about her past, and does not know that she is at the center of intrigue, mystery, and an unknowable destiny.

To say much more about what happens to Miranda would be unfair — and it would be even less fair to say what happens to her friends and how they come to accompany her to the alternate Roumania. However, despite a good deal of magical doings, and a subtle and malicious plot, all that A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA manages to do is set a scene. It is clearly intended to be book one of a series, although you might not know that at first. Readers looking for a sense of closure would be advised to look somewhere else, or to wait for the (hopefully) inevitable sequel.

Until then, the real question for the reader is whether he or she wants to spend time in Park’s fantasy world. The world that is created for the reader is dense in detail, in smoke, and in political maneuvering. There is magic both in the story and in the rich, layered, baroque style in which it is written. But it is a world with a long and complicated history, with subtly different rules. There is almost a textbook quality to the novel at times. While it is undoubtedly a complex and challenging work, it feels like it’s almost trying too hard to prove that it outclasses its roots in fantasy literature. The only problem with A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA is that it’s a bit of a struggle to get down that rabbit hole.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: AGINCOURT, by Bernard Cornwell

<a href="">Agincourt</a> Book Cover
Agincourt Fiction Harper Collins 512

One of the most dramatic victories in British history, the battle of Agincourt—immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V—pitted undermanned and overwhelmed English forces against a French army determined to keep their crown out of Henry’s hands.

Here’s the situation. You’re a peasant, and as we used to say back home, you’re so broke you can’t pay attention. You’re in the middle of a medieval battlefield, filled with rough characters and sharp weapons, with nothing to cover your own precious hide but the clothes on your back. You have one superb weapon — the English longbow — but not much in the way of arrows. You also have a long, sharp stick, assuming you haven’t burned it for firewood already. On the other side of the line of battle, there is a nobleman, a feudal lord who owns, more or less, the labor of hundreds of people just like you. He’s on a horse, wearing a suit of armor that incorporates all of the best technology of the day and worth more than your entire village can produce in 10 years. You’ve shot your last arrow, and the guy with the armor is coming to crush your skull. A plan would seem to be in order.

This is what you do, if you’re lucky enough and strong enough to pull it off. You plant yourself right in front of the galloping, charging horse (nobody said this was going to be easy), stab it with your sharpened stick, and hope that the animal is hurt enough and scared enough to knock its rider clean off. While the knight is still on his back, trapped under the weight of his armor, you find the one weak spot in the armor — his visor. And then you draw your long hunting knife and stab the no-good wretch right in the eye. Score one for the home team.

That’s the reality of medieval warfare. It’s savage, messy, and a million miles away from something as comparatively cold and dispassionate as pushing the button that unleashes hundreds of pounds of high explosives from a Predator drone over a terrorist camp. And if you want to bring back that world in fiction, it’s not enough to reproduce the strategies of battle and the blood and slaughter that follows in its wake. You have to know the ground — the sticky French mud that bogged down a huge army, making it vulnerable to barefoot English archers. You have to know the technology — how the English craftsmen took a piece of yew wood and shaped it into a weapon that changed history. You have to know the dynastic politics that animate the strategy, the engineering of the castles and the religious beliefs that led men into battle.

In other words, it’s the kind of thing that Bernard Cornwell has been doing for years — and nobody does it better.

If you’re not familiar with Cornwell’s work, you can start with his bestselling novels about the Viking era in England, which follow a ferocious war leader into the shield walls of Alfred the Great. Or you can check out the monumental Richard Sharpe series, which chronicles a Napoleonic War hero from the torture pits of an Indian warlord all the way to a personal confrontation with the Corsican corporal in exile on the lonely island of St. Helena. Both of these series (as well as other Cornwell novels set in the Civil War or the American Revolution) betray a comprehensive knowledge of their respective historical eras — and, even more important, considerable skill in making the battlefields and characters come to full, comprehensible life.

Cornwell’s books are populated with stout, resolute heroes, noble enemies and the treacherous plots of evil men. AGINCOURT is no exception; the differences are largely in the areas of weapons technology, strategy and the intricate details of late medieval life. Its principal hero, longbowman Nicholas Hook, differs from most Cornwell protagonists in his religious faith (notwithstanding that it’s hard to be a good Christian when your job description involves stabbing people in the eye).

The story of the climactic battle of Agincourt has been told before, most notably by Shakespeare, who gives King Henry perhaps the most rousing speech in English literature. Cornwell incorporates that speech in his narrative, but it’s more of a grace note than anything else. The real work is done in the trenches, by the men with the long bows and the empty stomachs. Cornwell tells their story, and nobody does it better.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: 25 TO LIFE: The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, by Leslie Crocker Snyder

<a href="">25 to Life</a> Book Cover
25 to Life Biography & Autobiography Grand Central Pub 338

One of the toughest judges in the United States shares her stories of life on and off the bench, offering a candid perspective on her controversial career.

By almost anyone’s standards, Leslie Crocker Snyder has a lousy job.

Snyder is a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice, handling criminal cases. (The “Supreme Court” in New York is not the highest appeals court, as it is in some states; there’s a not-particularly-helpful diagram of the structure of the New York state court system in the book for those who are interested.) She routinely draws the toughest cases around; multi-defendant trials of drug gangs, complex cases involving Mafia dons, and courtrooms with spine-chilling murderers. She earns less than a first-year attorney at a white-shoe Wall Street law firm. She has to deal with death threats on a routine basis. She has to battle the dark forces of sexism, and persuade state legislators towards reforming the penal code. Worse, she has to work every day with “attorneys,” and you know what “they’re” like.

The underlying question in 25 TO LIFE, Judge Snyder’s story about her legal career, is why she, or anyone else, would voluntarily choose such a profession, voluntarily put themselves on the front lines in New York City’s continual struggle against crime. Snyder makes it sound simple; she was bored. She was working in the consumer fraud unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and she hated it, and wanted to do something else, and ended up working rape and homicide cases. Along the way, she helped change the legal requirements for proving a rape case, and earned an appointment to the bench. There, she developed a reputation for harsh (although sometimes innovative) sentencing and became a figure of dread among the defense bar.

It’s clearly a rotten job, but one that Snyder enjoys. Despite its grisly detailing of drug deals and homicides and Mafia extortion, 25 TO LIFE is something of a love letter. Judge Snyder writes enthusiastically, almost passionately, about her profession and the men and women in the criminal justice system she works with. If 25 TO LIFE does nothing else, it shows how rewarding, how vital, how necessary a career in public service can be. It should be required reading for law students.

Casual readers, though, won’t find much to interest them in 25 To LIFE. Unlike many lawyers, Snyder has a direct, conversational style, but even her style can’t get the reader through the occasional impenetrable maze of legal technicalities. Her manifold encounters with criminal defendants seem to run into each other after awhile. And the book is marred here and there by unseemly bits of self-congratulation, as Snyder pats herself on the back in recounting her exploits. (She is particularly proud that a picture of a stern judge in her likeness appears on heroin bags with the caption, 25 TO LIFE hence the book’s title.)

However, Judge Snyder isn’t a writer by trade (the book was written with author Tom Shachtman), but a jurist, for which New Yorkers can be grateful and appreciative. 25 TO LIFE appropriately shows the dangers and the glories of a life on the bench in the riskiest of situations. It should remind all of us that our safety is largely due to the hard, unacknowledged work of the police and attorneys and judges who work in the criminal justice system, and that we owe them a debt of honor that we cannot easily repay.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE ACTIVIST: John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and the Myth of Judicial Review, by Lawrence Goldstone

<a href="">The Activist</a> Book Cover
The Activist History Walker Books 304

The Activist underscores the drama that occurred in 1803 by examining the debates that took place during the Constitutional Convention of 1787—among the most dramatic moments in American history—over the formation and structure of our judicial system.

Once you’re traveling in Constitutional legal circles, “activist” is an epithet — meaning, basically, that the other person with whom you do not share a political party is using the Constitution for political purposes. A horrible thing, to be sure. Most of the time (but not always, there are exceptions) the opposite epithet is “originalist,” which means that the other person wants to interpret the Constitution based on the received wisdom of the Founding Fathers, looking down on us, as from a judicial Olympus with haughty and austere visages, proclaiming the Only Right Approach to Constitutional issues, in voices dry as dust and tinged with the irritation of the centuries.

One suspects, however, that if the Founders were confronted with the issues the Supreme Court is now facing — particularly the recent Establishment Clause case involving an obscure Utah cult dedicated, among other things, to the practice of mummifying pets — that the exalted personages would find themselves laughing like drains at the absurdity of it all.

Lawrence Goldstone’s avowed purpose is to illustrate that one of the Founding Fathers — John Marshall, the first great and consequential Chief Justice — belongs in the “activist” category, and the question of whether he accomplishes this purpose will be left to the intelligent and discerning reader. What he actually manages to do, however (at least in the area of judicial review), is shatter originalism into a thousand broken pieces, scattered across the marble corridors of jurisprudence like the debris of a gallant but doomed civilization overrun by bandits.

The book traces judicial review — the idea that an unelected judiciary should have the authority to invalidate legislative or executive actions that conflict with the Constitution — through the Articles of Confederation all the way down to the thump of Marbury v. Madison landing on John Marshall’s desk. And what Goldstone finds in all this mass of historical evidence is the loud, clear, unequivocal voice of the Founding Fathers, stating in unison, “Well, I don’t know, what do you think?”

Of course, they said no such thing — although it would have been much more helpful if they had, because (as Goldstone proves, and a comprehensive job he does of it) there really isn’t all that much in the record, and what there is displays a good bit of division on the issue, when there is not a complete lack of effort to come to grips with the question. Goldstone follows the tracks of judicial review through the lost history of the ratifying conventions and the Federalist-Antifederalist debate, and comes up with a startling lack of consensus on how the Supreme Court should apply the Constitution to the law in case of a conflict.

The issue wouldn’t come up for quite some time — not until the famous case of Marbury v. Madison — allowing Goldstone to map out the early years of the Supreme Court, notable primarily for the Justice’s gripes about “circuit riding,” traveling across the then-remote American wilderness to hold court outside Washington. He does a phenomenal job of making the murky facts of Marbury, and their even murkier political context, clear and understandable. If Goldstone can’t do quite the same thing for Justice Marshall’s opinion in Marbury, there’s a reason for that. He calls Marbury a “masterpiece of misdirection,” and his clear prose does little to illuminate the thickets of Marshall’s. (The Marbury opinion is included as an appendix for the adventurous.)

THE ACTIVIST proves its central point convincingly; Marbury was an activist decision, perhaps bordering on the partisan. But it does something else entirely, and greater; by parsing out the history of the idea of judicial review, it demolishes the myth that today’s Constitutional issues can best be resolved by consulting the founding documents. There is, after all, no guarantee that they would agree with us on the issues, any more than they agreed with each other.

Book Reviews, Literary


<a href="">To Conquer the Air</a> Book Cover
To Conquer the Air Biography & Autobiography Simon and Schuster 433

A history of the first-flight race documents the efforts of such Wright brothers competitors as the Smithsonian’s Samuel Pierpont Langley, motorcyclist Glenn Curtiss, and Alexander Graham Bell.

It is probably just a coincidence that two of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century were fifty years apart, more or less. Both of them celebrate an anniversary in 2003. The discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA occurred in 1953 and the first flight of the Wright Brothers in North Carolina happened in 1903. James Tobin chronicles the latter event in TO CONQUER THE AIR.

The discovery of DNA exemplifies most laboratory research: safe, sterile and subdued, with no risk of personal danger. This discovery was a great intellectual adventure, but without great physical challenge. Aviation is different and it continues to be different to this day, especially given the recent loss of seven brave aviation pioneers in the skies over Texas in a manner in which the Wright Brothers could have envisioned only in their most far-flung fantasies.

TO CONQUER THE AIR is primarily a story of intellectual discovery. It follows the parallel work of the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio and Dr. Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution, all of whom were working on powered aircraft in the early days of the twentieth century. The Wright Brothers are famous but unknown; they appear together in our collective unconsciousness on one windy day at Kitty Hawk and then vanish like smoke, brothers but not individuals. Langley’s name is attached to an air force base in Virginia but is otherwise forgotten. Tobin does the reader a signal service in bringing the Wrights and Langley to colorful life and in reminding us of the debt we owe to them.

Langley’s tale is the least known. He was an astronomer who developed an interest in powered flight late in life. As the president of the Smithsonian Institution, he was perfectly placed to lead the aviation revolution. He had the scientific knowledge, the insight and the necessary funding from an Army contract to build a prototype “aerodrome”. He worked with some of the top engineers in the country to build a lightweight gasoline engine to power his craft. An unmanned version flew for about a mile in initial tests. But the great aerodrome was destined for a series of disasters, mostly in the full glare of national publicity.

The Wright Brothers had none of these advantages, but Tobin painstakingly explains how they were able to achieve powered flight when the best minds in the country could not. Their work on gliders, their research on lift and their intimate knowledge of the winds at Kill Devil Hill on the North Carolina coast all gave them an edge over Langley. One of the most memorable passages in the book describes how Charlie Taylor, the Wright’s mechanic at their bicycle shop, put together a lightweight 12-horsepower gasoline engine out of spare parts, easily outdoing the best engine that Langley could provide for his craft.

The story of the race for flight is not especially romantic at times and it gets bogged down in arcane period details. Tobin might have been better advised to leave out the endless wrangling about the position of the Wrights’ father in the United Brethren Church, or the kite experiments of Alexander Graham Bell. But Tobin tells his detailed, exacting story well and makes the mysteries of flight comprehensible. He never forgets how dangerous the whole project was (and still is, at times) and brings the Wright Brothers out of the dust of history and into the reader’s imaginations — as individuals, no less. TO CONQUER THE AIR is a fine book that provides a signal service in illuminating the discovery of flight.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: PIRATES OF THE LEVANT, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

<a href="">Pirates of the Levant</a> Book Cover
Pirates of the Levant Adventure stories 267

Accompanied by his faithful companion Inigo, the captain joins a Spanish galleon and sets sail from Naples towards the east on a journey that will take them to Melilla, Oran, and finally Malta where they must struggle against the Turk.

The previous Captain Alatriste novel (or the last one to be translated and released in the US) was titled THE CAVALIER IN THE YELLOW DOUBLET, and there you have it. “Cavalier” is one of those loaded words; it carries with it connotations of chivalry and swordplay and courtly love and roistering in the streets — and all of that was in there and more. This book is called PIRATES OF THE LEVANT, and if ever there was a loaded word, it is “pirates.” Shiver me timbers, lads, and point me to the buried treasure. Arrr.

Well, these aren’t those kind of pirates, you understand, and although Captain Alatriste is a soldier of fortune — and to make the pop culture reference, he would make a very fine Dread Pirate Roberts — he emphatically is not a pirate. The pirates are the enemies here, and fine stout foes they are, and it is Alatriste’s job to rob them of their plunder and make the waters of the wine-dark Mediterranean safe for the commerce of Spain and her allies.

Where PIRATES OF THE LEVANT differs from the rum-soaked tales of Caribbean piracy largely has to do with the types of ships that are used. The buccaneer ships were sailing ships, for the most part, depending on wind power and seamanship for propulsion. In the Mediterranean, though, the galley was used, and galleys are powered by sweaty, smelly slaves chained to their benches and straining their backs to haul the oars. It is this sort of ship that Alatriste and his ward Diego are assigned to, operating out of Naples, patrolling the seas to stop the pirate menace, whether it be English, Dutch, or the dreaded Moors. Dreaded, you see, because the wages of defeat to a Moorish vessel were no wages at all — the losers of any given battle ended up pulling oars for the victors.

The typical pacing that Arturo Perez-Reverte employs is used here, with long sections of exposition and poetic quotation punctuated by violent and colorful swordfights. But in PIRATES OF THE LEVANT, he expands his repertoire to include the naval battle, and aficionados of the genre should fall upon his work gratefully. An early cutting-out expedition against an English pirate stronghold is almost as good as anything Patrick O’Brian could do, and you can’t say fairer than that.

The other welcome development in PIRATES OF THE LEVANT is the change of scenery — well, perhaps not that so much as the characters who inhabit Alatriste’s Madrid do not come along, or only make cameo appearances. We are left instead to concentrate on Alatriste, who is essentially unchanged, and the narrator, young Diego, who is maturing, getting into trouble, and starting to chafe a bit under Alatriste’s leadership. Diego is somewhat problematic as a narrator. He’s overly florid at times, a bit too fond of quoting classical Spanish poetry at every conceivable occasion, and it just doesn’t seem possible that he could know so much about Alatriste’s mind in those scenes where he himself does not appear. But Diego as a character is a charming, engaging puppy, and Perez-Reverte lets him grow up a little and bark some.

PIRATES OF THE LEVANT does wander about the Mediterranean a little bit and stays too often in some uninteresting locales exploring subplots that at times don’t go much of anywhere. But it ends with a battle combining seamanship and defiance and sacrifice and no quarter given and no quarter taken. Doomed Spaniards fight renegade janissaries on wrecked galleys, as harquebusiers flare and steel glints against steel. Arrr. It’s a pirate’s life, fellow readers, a pirate’s life for me. Anyone who wants blood-soaked action and raw defiance against impossible odds should sign on, and quickly.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: FLYBOYS: A TRUE STORY OF COURAGE, by James Bradley

<a href="">Flyboys</a> Book Cover
Flyboys Biography & Autobiography Back Bay Books 464

This acclaimed bestseller brilliantly illuminates a hidden piece of World War II history as it tells the harrowing true story of nine American airmen shot down in the Pacific.

Reading James Bradley’s FLYBOYS is like watching Fox News Channel: both the book and the news channel have being “fair and balanced” as their goal, but reaching that goal is sometimes — if not always — a bit of a struggle.

In the case of the book, the balance is between the Allied and Japanese fronts in World War II, and the author ends up trying very hard to make the Japanese case. Sure, the Japanese wanted to conquer East Asia and take over its population. But how is this any different, Bradley asks, from imperialist Europeans in the last century colonizing Africa and India? Sure, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria and put its people to the sword and herded its
women into “comfort houses” of prostitution, this was bad. But American civilians killed defenseless Native Americans at the Sand Creek massacre and elsewhere — what’s the difference? And sure, there was the Pearl Harbor attack but the American response to that involved napalm attacks on the Japanese heartland that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.

However, the balance in FLYBOYS is much more carefully poised. The real horror of the book is war itself, and the nature of war doesn’t differ much on either side of the conflict. Horrible things happen in war — that’s the way war is. Dwelling on the crimes of one side or the other just feeds the fires of conflict, years after the end of hostilities. Even the most terrible of war crimes, like what happened to eight stranded American Navy, Marine and Army Air Corps flyers on the remote Pacific island of Chichi Jima, must be understood as part of the overall wretched fabric of war.

And what happened on Chichi Jima, you might ask? Well, now it can be told. The story of what happened to a small group of American naval aviators on the Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima was a long-held secret, buried amidst the flurry of war-crimes trials. Chichi Jima was something of a sideshow in the war, one of the Bonin Islands, near the vastly more famous Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima had room for an airstrip; Chichi Jima only had room for a massive radio complex, sending intelligence data back to Tokyo. That made it a secondary target, but a target nonetheless, and American bombers were tasked to destroy it. Anti-aircraft fire from the island brought down some American planes, and their surviving crew members parachuted to the island as prisoners of war.

What happened next scarcely bears thinking about.

Bradley does tell us about it eloquently and, most importantly of all, non-judgmentally. What happened to Jimmy Dye, Glenn Frazier, Floyd Hall, Marve Mershon, Dick Woelhof, Grady York, Warren Earl Vaughan, and the anonymous B-24 crewman who shared their fates is shocking — so much so that even their families could not know the whole truth. It was certainly a violation of the Geneva Convention protecting the rights of prisoners of war. It was so awful that most of the Japanese soldiers had to be ordered to participate.

What Bradley does well is to put what happened on Chichi Jima in context. By itself, in isolation, the story of the eight Americans on Chichi Jima is the stuff of nightmares. But Bradley deftly places it against the appropriate backdrop — the conquest-drunk warlords in Tokyo, the misplaced code of bushido that led to fanatical nonsense, the American napalm attacks that burnt the heart out of metropolitan Japan, and the vain sacrifice of the emperor’s “shattered jewels.”

FLYBOYS is a tough read, but it is more than worthwhile. Bradley balances his catalog of horrors with an admiring, appreciative look at the courage of the American flyers who won the war in the Pacific. FLYBOYS is a worthy testament to their efforts and their sacrifice.

Book Reviews, Literary


I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive Book Cover
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive Fiction Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 243

Wracked by guilt and addiction 10 years after administering a fatal morphine overdose to Hank Williams, Doc Ebersole performs illegal medical services in the red-light district of San Antonio before meeting a young Mexican immigrant who seems to heal others with her touch. 50,000 first printing.

The words “author” and “authority” are similar, but by no means interchangeable. Just writing a book doesn’t make someone an authority. And being an authority doesn’t mean someone can write a book, especially if the authority manages to let their knowledge about a subject get in the way of telling a good story. Having said that, an author who writes with authority — with the confidence that comes with mastery of a subject — can turn out work of a higher quality and tenor than those of us who just make stuff up.

You might expect Steve Earle, as an author, to write with authority about music. He has been one of the leading lights of the alt-country music scene for a quarter-century now, and has a formidable reputation as a songwriter on top of that. Given that I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE is accompanied by a studio album of the same name, and that the ghost of Hank Williams plays a large role, it’s altogether reasonable to expect there to be a significant musical underpinning to the novel.

But it’s not there.

Well, Hank is there, but he doesn’t play his guitar or sing the lovesick blues or do much of anything but haunt Doc Ebersole. By the time the story starts, he’s been doing that for a long time — haunting the doctor that gave him the last shot of morphine to soothe his aching back and worried mind. Now it’s 1963, and the world has moved on from Hank’s kind of music, and Doc has moved on to the mean streets of south San Antonio. Doc, you see, is a heroin addict. That’s how the story begins, anyway, with Doc (that’s what everybody calls him now) dragging his sorry self out of his seedy boarding house, down the street to the guy selling smack behind the liquor store, trying to get just enough opiates in his system to be able to function for one more day.

And here, in the scenes that detail exactly what Doc goes through every day as a heroin addict, is where we see the author speak with the authority that makes the story real, vibrant and meaningful. If anyone else in the world of publishing knows more about heroin addiction than Steve Earle, they are either dead, extremely grateful not to be dead, or Keith Richards. The long name for it is verisimilitude; the short name is the truth. The fictional character of Doc is not a stand-in for Earle, but his experience informs the writing and makes Doc’s cravings realistic, believable and compelling beyond what any ordinary writer could achieve, or likely want to achieve.

But Earle’s tale is not just about heroin and everything that comes along in its train. His subject matter is the low life — the slums and the people who live there and what they do — and he writes about them with empathy and skill and purpose. His characters are sinners in need of redemption, but not judgment. He doesn’t varnish or excuse what Doc does to get the money for the drugs he needs — in fact, his own brand of social activism peeks through now and again to justify Doc’s actions, if not to excuse them.

I’LL NEVER GET OUT OF THIS WORLD ALIVE is not a pretty book, and no one is asking the reader to find it so. The ending is more than a bit forced when it’s not downright awkward, and its foray into Latin American magic realism is unsubtle at best. But no one can deny the power that Earle displays in writing about bleakness, heroin and the ghost of Hank Williams. The pleasure of seeing him transfer his many gifts into liquid, memorable prose far outweighs any other shortcomings.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: DEATH OF KINGS, by Bernard Cornwell

Death of Kings Book Cover
Death of Kings Fiction Harper Paperbacks 336

Torn between his vows to Alfred and the desire to reclaim his long-lost ancestral lands in the north, Uhtred, Saxon-born and Viking-raised, remains the king’s warrior but has sworn no oath to the crown prince. Now he must make a momentous decision that will forever transform his life and the course of history: to take up arms—and Alfred’s mantle—or lay down his sword and let his liege’s dream of a unified kingdom die along with him.

Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales teach us that fate is inexorable and history is cruel. These forces shape not just our history, but our historical fiction as well. The newest volume is titled DEATH OF KINGS, and Cornwell has to deal not only with the inexorable historical fact of the death of Alfred the Great, but also with the cruelty of the loss of Alfred the Great as a character in his novel.

“Cornwell has to deal not only with the inexorable historical fact of the death of Alfred the Great, but also with the cruelty of the loss of Alfred the Great as a character in his novel…. Cornwell writes about battle with verve and attention to detail…”

It might have been one thing if Alfred had died in battle. Cornwell’s books thrive on battles, whether in pre-Norman England or Napoleonic Spain or the ragged edges of empires. But here, Alfred dies at home — of sickness and old age — and DEATH OF KINGS is largely the story of the continuation of his kingdom. The new king must face an ascendant church bureaucracy, family rivals, and the constant threat of Danish invasion. In order to do that, he has to have a war leader, someone of unrivaled courage and cunning, a threat to his enemies and all who dare oppose him in the shield wall of medieval battle. He must have Uhtred.

The love-hate relationship between Alfred the Great and the great warrior Uhtred had been the central axis of the Saxon Tales. Although Alfred is dead, Uhtred is still bound to his kingdom through bonds of loyalty, family and property. Uhtred dislikes and disrespects the priests who gather around Alfred in his last days — not only because of his hostility to the Christian religion, but also because of their pious belief that the Danes can be defeated through prayer and missionary work. Uhtred knows that defeating the Danish threat will take swords, shields and the lives of the men who wield them, and he uses the lands and wealth gifted to him by Alfred to build up a core of loyal retainers.

History is kind to Uhtred in that the Danes do not immediately use the opportunity of Alfred’s death to attack his kingdom. This allows him to try his hand at chicanery by setting up a bogus fortune-telling operation to mislead the Danes and goad them into battle. This works a little too well, and the Danes land a large force in the east. Uhtred manages to block the Danish advance and set up a climactic battle, but the new king, Edward, listens to the counsel of his priests and delays until reinforcements are available.

It is the nature of this particular conflict that makes it all too obvious how much the death of Alfred impacts Cornwell’s narrative. The conflict between Uhtred and Alfred, and the inner conflict between loyalty and desire for Uhtred, has been a hallmark of the earlier books. Here, the conflict is diminished, partly because Edward is a much less interesting character, and partly because Uhtred’s allegiance to him is more secure.

Eventually, the Danish forces coalesce, and Uhtred is able to draw his forces together to face them. Cornwell writes about battle with verve and attention to detail, and here he lets Uhtred glory in the joy of slaughter while taking on a whole raft of enemies and traitors.

DEATH OF KINGS is not the conclusion of the Saxon Tales, but part of the saga ends here, and it’s a tremendous loss to see Alfred the Great slip away into history. But no king’s reign is forever, and no peace is permanent. Cornwell’s Wessex will remain besieged by enemies and will need Uhtred in the breach, wielding his long sword and short dagger, to fend off the forces that would destroy it.

Book Reviews, Literary


<a href="">The Fort</a> Book Cover
The Fort Fiction Harper Paperbacks 496

In the summer of 1779, as the major fighting of the Revolutionary War moves to the South, a British force consisting of fewer than a thousand Scottish infantry and backed by three sloops-of-war sails to the fogbound coast of New England.

Bernard Cornwell writes about war and battle, which means that he also writes about stupidity. Writing about the stupid things officers in charge do when soldiers are in the field is as respectable as Tennyson (someone had blunder’d) and at least as old as Homer (Achilles sulking in his tent), probably older. There is something about military command that brings out the worst in some commanders; whether they are blind, stubborn, pig-headed, cowardly, useless, or just plain dumb, they can lead soldiers into the worst kind of trouble. “I am sick and tired of disaster and the fools that bring disaster upon us,” wrote one New York private about a particularly idiotic Civil War general.

The Revolutionary War battle that Cornwell writes about in THE FORT is an obscure one, whose most famous participants (as Cornwell notes) are better known for their appearance in heroic poetry related to other conflicts. The action takes place in Maine, near an obscure settlement with a tongue-twisting Indian name, a short ways up the Penobscot River. The British are building a fort there, which will serve as a base for the Royal Navy to harass rebel shipping in and out of Boston. The Americans respond by sending an expedition to kill or capture the veteran British regiments, and that’s where the trouble starts.

Because it’s difficult moving overland through the rocky and thickly forested terrain of the Maine coast, the troops have to be sent by water. And since the threat posed by these particular British regiments is mainly to Boston’s commerce, and not to the Continental Army itself, the troops that are available are green Massachusetts militiamen. This requires a great deal of coordination between the Continental Navy ships that are carrying and supporting the militia and the citizen-soldiers who make it up. That did not happen, and Cornwell glories in comparing the petty and small-minded rivalry between the army and navy — as well as between the militia’s army and artillery — with the stiff-upper-lip professionalism of the British.

In your typical Bernard Cornwell novel, what happens when you get a situation like this is that the hero — tough-minded, highly skilled, incapable of suffering fools — takes charge and slices through the enemy lines like a rolling ball of butcher knives. This is not a typical Cornwell novel. The biggest hero on the American side is Paul Revere, later to get eternal fame in Longfellow’s poem, and Cornwell paints him as shallow, vain and ineffectual. His counterpart in fame on the British side is Lieutenant John Moore, who will later become a General whose death in Spain fighting Napoleon will be recorded by the poet Charles Wolfe (and by Cornwell in his Richard Sharpe series). Moore is more in the cut of Cornwell’s heroes, but here he is just a young lieutenant getting his first taste of battle.

It is the nature of this particular battle, unfortunately, that it is attended with unimportant political issues, petty rivalries, and unproductive councils of war. What action there is tends to be short and sharp, illuminated by Cornwell’s thorough knowledge of the era’s weapons and tactics, and enlivened by blood and gore sufficient enough for any armchair warrior.

THE FORT will please Cornwell’s loyal readers, as well as fans of Revolutionary-era historical fiction. But there are drawbacks, prominent among them Cornwell’s insistence on giving minor fictional characters names that start with the letter F — a tactic that is more annoying than helpful. The non-military characters, particularly the American Loyalist refugees, aren’t drawn with a great degree of subtlety. And the battle itself is so obscure that one wonders why Cornwell was drawn to the subject matter. But given his prolific and honorable career, no one can fault him for writing about a forgotten piece of history that interests him deeply. THE FORT is an outstanding effort by a master of the genre.