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Man of Honour: book review (Marlborough time-period)

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  • James Yaworsky
    I was buying a book from Amazon, and was a bit short on getting the free shipping , so I searched around for something to add to my order, and found Man of
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 28, 2007
      I was buying a book from Amazon, and was a bit short on getting the
      "free shipping", so I searched around for something to add to my
      order, and found "Man of Honour" by Iain Gale.

      This book is the first of a series that will deal with characters in
      the British army during the wars of Marlborough. It is specifically
      touted as being the next big "Bernard Cornwell- Sharpe" type series.

      *Spoiler alert* *SPOILER ALERT* *spoiler alert*

      – *don't* read any further unless you don't care about having a good
      chunk of the plot disclosed to you…

      -

      -

      -

      -

      -

      OK – you're still here. So here's the dirt on this one.

      The hero is a fellow named "Jack Steel". Jack is a Lieutenant, but
      he's got experience fighting the Russians whilst in the Swedish army.
      He's got a big sword and is a bit of an outcast in his regiment,
      partly because of his experiences slicing and dicing Ruskies, but also
      partly because he exchanged in to his Scottish regiment from the Foot
      Guards – seemingly, a major step down, and which adds to the mystery
      he presents to his fellow officers. Most of them just can't figure
      him out!

      The mystery is resolved for the reader when we find out he had (has?)
      a stinking rich, sensuous, and generally bodacious mistress back in
      London, and it is through *her* influence that he got his commission
      in the Foot Guards, which he certainly didn't have the cash resources
      to get in to on his own. In fact, he's broke most of the time.

      Despite being in the prestigious Foot Guards, he then thought better
      of it and exchanged in to the lesser regiment. Although his mistress
      is apparently about as "hot" as they get, and is willing to pull all
      sorts of strings with him – she is a buddy of the Duchess of
      Marlborough – he has decided that he's got to make it on his own.
      He's decided he's not going to be a "boy-toy" any more. He's a "Man
      of Honour" – a theme several of the characters in the book must examine…

      Lt. Steel commands half the elite Grenadier Company of his Regiment.
      Since the Captain's spot is vacant, he's pretty much running the show
      on his half of the company. The other half is being run by a rather
      jaded but fairly droll fellow who we don't see a lot of. This other
      officer likes to drink to excess and make droll comments about the
      suicidal aspects of most of Lt. Steel's plans, but he never really
      gets in the way of them.

      Lt. Steel has a loyal henchman. This fellow is a Sergeant, whose
      name, (and I kid not) is "Sergeant Slaughter". Steel is the
      second-biggest/toughest guy in the Company, after Sergeant Slaughter.
      But guess what? Sergeant Slaughter has a soft side. Not unlike the
      sidekick of a rather famous fictional Rifle officer in the Napoleonic
      Wars, who likes birds. I won't bore you with what Sergeant
      Slaughter's particular interest is.

      Anyway, let's see if the book has a "formula" to its plot.

      Well, the book starts off with Steel and Slaughter et al getting set
      to storm a key position on a high hill in a suicidal manner. The
      assault starts off, and artillery starts to shred the attackers. It
      quickly becomes apparent that unless something happens fast, the
      assault will fail.

      Luckily for Marlborough and the entire allied army, Steel is on the
      extreme right flank of the assault, and notices a convenient ditch
      that he is able to take his Grenadiers along unobserved and approach
      and then hit the enemy position from close range. Sergeant Slaughter
      shows his nasty side, etc., and in short, victory is snatched from the
      jaws of disaster.

      In the aftermath of this bloody victory, Steel is given an important
      assignment by no less a personality than Marlborough himself, via a
      wry staff officer who is sort of Marlborough's "dirty
      projects/spymaster" dude. Sound familiar?

      Steel also has a very nasty run-in with a senior officer in his
      regiment – a Major - who attempts to purloin the glory of the
      successful recent action although he spent the time in the rear not
      leading the assault like our hero. This senior officer looks down on
      Steel, has a puffed-up impression of his own importance, and hates
      Marlborough because he's from the other political party, and he thinks
      they should be fighting the French in Spain, not Germany.

      Steel and his depleted half company are assigned to go out and buy a
      very large shipment of flour that the army absolutely needs in order
      to maintain itself in the field. But there's also a secret assignment…

      So what's the secret assignment? Seems Marlborough carelessly was
      carrying around in his baggage a letter he had sent to King James III
      a few years before – a letter that will, if it comes to light, at best
      result in his immediate removal from command. At worst, it will
      result in Marlborough being invited to a "neck-tie" party except
      they'll be using rope and his body will be dropped from a height with
      it wrapped around his neck in order to test its tensile strength…

      Unfortunately, raiders were able to capture Marlborough's baggage and
      now some German merchant – in fact, the same dude who has all the
      flour – is willing to sell not just the flour, but the letter too, to
      the highest bidder.

      Guess what? Traitors in the British camp inform the Frenchies of
      what's going on, and a very nasty French Hussar guy, with his
      regiment, is sent off to get the letter, destroy the flour, and in
      general raise hell. Think "Loup".

      Also, strings are pulled in the British camp and the Major gets the
      assignment of taking his full company of the Regiment out, to
      basically ambush Steel, kill him, and get the letter so that
      Marlborough will be discredited etc etc etc.

      A good chunk of the book is therefore about what happens as Steel, the
      evil Frenchman, and the traitorous Major wander the Bavarian
      countryside playing cat and mouse with each other.

      Why does Marlborough send a Lieutenant and a half company of
      Grenadiers out on such a vital "foraging" mission? Why does the evil
      Frenchman decide to massacre every man, woman, and child in a
      picturesque Bavarian village? Why does the Major, when he hooks up
      with Steel, not take charge of the combined unit? Dunno, but that's
      the way things go down…

      Major and Steel end up in a burned Bavarian village, where only the
      church and the local tavern have been spared. Dutch cavalry have
      burned the place down on Marlborough's orders (he's trying to convince
      the ruler of Bavaria to desert the French cause – burning half of
      Bavaria out seems to have the opposite effect). In the tavern, spared
      because the aged owner is sick, is the aged owner's really super-hot
      (but very naive) blonde daughter.

      Hey, guess what happens then?

      Anyway, the Major does nasty things to the daughter but she can't tell
      anyone because he threatens to kill her father if she does. Did I
      forget to mention that the Major has his own Sergeant/flunkie? Think
      Hakeswell and you'll be close to what this guy is like. The Major and
      his evil Sergeant frame the German merchant for what happened to the
      Fraulein. The Merchant is traveling with them because the crazed
      French Hussar dude murdered all the German merchant's flunkies when he
      massacred the entire village. The Major is still looking for an
      opportunity to kill Steel at this point.

      Confusing, ain't it?

      So the whole not-so-happy gang set off to find Marlborough's main
      army. This is where sending cavalry out on this mission might have
      been more sensible than sending Steel et al.

      Anyway, they are settling down in a nice village for the night when
      the evil Frenchman and his maniac-killer Hussars show up and a very
      nasty and desperate fight starts up. Luckily for Steel and his gang,
      unbeknownst to them they were only a short distance from the main
      army, and just when all appears completely hopeless, rescuers arrive
      and… well, "rescue" them. What a cliff-hanger! But the rescuers
      don't arrive before the Major reveals his traitorous intentions,
      nearly murders Steel, and takes off with the all-important letter.

      The last part of the book finds the armies squaring off at Blenheim.
      Steel has a special interest in the upcoming battle, as he's sure the
      Major is now with the Frenchies. The Frenchies will try and win the
      battle, but if they lose, then they can send the Major back to England
      with the letter and Marlborough will be "history". Nefarious
      bastards! But this is also Steel's only chance to redeem himself in
      Marlborough's eyes…

      Needless to say, in the confusion of the battle, Steel and Slaughter
      manage to save their Regiment's Colours, then take the battle in to
      Blenheim village itself, where a confrontation with the evil Major
      forms the climax of the book. The Major has been put in command of a
      bunch of deserters by the French. Only at this point does the Major
      start considering just how "honourable" his actions up to this point
      have been. But it's too late for him!

      The final confrontation takes place on the second floor of a house in
      the village where the Major has holed up. A series of confrontations
      take place, in fact – including hot-blonde Fraulein showing up and
      attempting to shoot Major. Her aim must have been spoiled because
      Steel was "bonking" her all the prior night back in the British camp
      so she's tired etc.

      Did I mention that although the Major is a coward and a bit of an
      idiot, he is also a super-duper trained swordsman?

      The struggle sways to and fro…

      But not to worry… because this is the first book of a series.

      So what can I say about the good points of this book?

      The writing is certainly not up to Cornwell's standard. It does not
      flow naturally.

      Descriptions of battle dwell at length upon artillery strikes on the
      serried ranks of the various armies. A lot of heads, legs, etc. are
      flying around. Blood and brains splatter a lot of pretty uniforms.
      In fact, Steel's half-company take really heavy casualties in each and
      every incident of combat they are involved in throughout the book. I
      didn't bother to add them all up, but my impression was that this half
      company must have had a few hundred guys in it, and only a dozen or so
      are left at the end…

      As for the details of combat: these Grenadiers still have real
      grenades. Quite a few of them, it seems, because there are many
      desperate moments when they are flinging them around and the
      explosions save the day for them.

      Unfortunately, these Grenadiers have apparently also been trained to
      load their muskets by biting off the ball end of the cartridge, and
      spitting same down the barrel…
      Ya know, at this point in time, it's really inexcusable in an author
      who is purporting to write an historically-accurate novel to be making
      this idiotic mistake…

      On the plus side, there is some effort to portray the fact the
      "British" army is a new creation, still feeling its growing pains,
      being moulded by Marlborough. These are Regiments still in their
      infancy, compared to the mature tradition-rich regiments of the
      Napoleonic wars. The origin of "platoon fire", using the novel
      flintlocks, is shown, and the effectiveness of the British infantry is
      ascribed to this new system of fighting.

      On the other hand, Marlborough himself comes across as a remarkably
      flat and wimpy character. Not the way I've ever envisaged him, that's
      for sure…

      On a thematic note, there is some effort to grapple with the concept
      of "honour" – all the major characters (well, Steel and the Major, at
      any rate) have to confront the "honour" in their possible choices in
      the various crises. This at least gives some added direction to the
      development of the plot and characters.

      Bottom line: would I buy this book again? Probably not - not even to
      get free shipping. Volume two had better be a lot better if Sharpe
      and Harp… er, "Steel and Slaughter", are going to march much further…

      Jim Yaworsky
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