Cornwell - Starbuck Vols 1-3

August 30, 2005

Bernard Cornwell
The Starbuck Chronicles, Vols 1-3
The Rebel
Battle Flag (did not finish)

Cornwell did a very nice job of writing about the Napoleonic British army with his Sharpe series. This is an attempt to write a somewhat similar series about the American Civil War. It might just be that I know more about the ACW than I do about Napoleonics, but I found the first series compelling, the second disturbing.

Both series focus on a difficult young man who is also a very good soldier. Sharpe is a gutter-snipe, raised to be an officer after an act of great valor, then struggling in the class and status-bound world of the British Army. Most of the novels are set in Spain and Portugal, most focus around set-piece descriptions of the major campaigns, and the series as a whole roughly re-tells the military career of Arthur Wellesly, Duke of Wellington, through the eyes of a junior officer. The French are villains, the British officer corps is made up of heroes and slugs (in roughly equal measure), and the British soldiers are presented as drunken, violent, thieving bastards who are also brave and well-trained fighting men.

The big problem that Cornwell faces when he tries to adopt this formula to the American Civil War is not so much military as social. After all, the ACW was in large part a war fought using Napoleonic tactics and mid-century technology. The problem comes with heroes and villains, and with slavery. Much of the market for civil war fiction does not want to read about the evils of slavery - they may not defend it, but they want to read things that make the boys in grey sympathetic. There are several ways to handle this problem, most famously the traditional "lost cause" argument that says that the war had nothing to do with slavery but was about states rights, or tariffs, or modernization, or what have you. Cornwell knows better than that.

Instead he makes his hero the disinherited son of a Boston abolitionist, who ends up fighting in the Army of Northern Virginia. He gets to write about someone who dislikes slavery but who wears the grey and fights for the heroic underdogs, the best of both worlds. The father is right out of Birth of a Nation - I forget but I think he even walks with a cane like the Sumner figure from that movie. Some of the other Southerners are involved with slavery, including the not-so-nice drunk and former slave trader who ends up as Starbuck's commander for a while, but by and large this is a set of novels about people who are not involved in slavery but who are fighting in the Confederate Army. And, to be fair, most of the boys in grey were from non-slaveholding families. Still, I would rather have had an honest Thornwell than this half-assed attempt to create anti-slavery confederates. Of course, then you would face the problem of either making racists into sympathetic characters or making the people your readers want to sympathize with into consistent jerks. The first is the more historically accurate solution, but would make the books much harder to write.

Beyond that, it is a fairly straight-forward recounting of the career of the Army of Northern Virginia through the eyes of these fictitious characters from this fictitious unit from a fictitious Virginia county. However, I found the compromises as to setting, allegiance, and alliances to be to distracting. I read two novels, put the third down half finished, and am highly unlikely to pick up anything more in this series.

I give it a mneah: read it if you like this sort of thing, but Sharpe is a cleaner narrative.

Posted by Red Ted at August 30, 2005 05:12 PM | TrackBack
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