It’s October of 1812, and the British are tired of fighting on two fronts. Hoping to use their common interests to unite diverse factions among the French – disenchanted Republicans, the royalist government in exile, and the church, among others – they aim to secretly finance a revolution against Napoleon, ally themselves with the replacement government, and bring an end to the Peninsular War. And with the despotic little Corsican two thousand miles away in Russia with his Grand Armée as winter approaches, they see the perfect opportunity to do it.
Hawkwood’s dangerous journey to the heart of Napoleonic Paris runs an obstacle course through the historical adventure genre. He learns martial arts from a Chinese expert fighter in the dingy cellar of a London pub, barely survives a violent storm at sea, and flees hostile musket fire near the French coastal village of Ambleteuse before meeting with his Parisian contact, several wardrobe changes and pseudonyms later. McGee is equally adept at writing scenes of military combat, naval adventure, and urban suspense. His re-creation of the perils the cutter Griffin encounters feels especially realistic. Readers will hang onto their chairs as the ship reels in the storm’s wake, the sea crashes over the side, and other sailors are swept away in terror.
The many switches in tone and setting get rather frenetic, but when the novel settles in as a political thriller a third of the way in, the plot gains serious momentum. Just eight years after Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, Paris is showing evidence of decline. Through Hawkwood’s eyes, readers view the grim underbelly of a city weary of constant war, poverty grinding away at its people’s hopes. Audacious in its ultimate goal, the scheming amongst the conspirators is satisfyingly twisty. Fictional characters like Hawkwood are convincingly interwoven into the planned coup d’état, a documented historical event. I began to wonder if they’d really pull it off!
Hawkwood, a battle-scarred hero with an “ambivalent attitude towards authority,” has the physical prowess and nimbleness of mind for the job. Yet he doesn’t emerge unscathed from his hairsbreadth escapes. Although he doesn’t indulge in much introspection, he survives thanks to the selfless acts of others, and he can’t help feeling guilty about the many people who die helping him complete his mission. This sobering reality, one often neglected in novels of this type, adds unexpected depth to the narrative. And though Rebellion is fourth in the Hawkwood series, I didn’t feel left out. There were some unexplained references to past events and associates, but if anything, this made him even more enigmatic of a character.
Historical adventure is traditionally a male field, and this evocation of late Napoleonic Paris is very much a man’s domain, yet the few female characters are just as skillfully evoked – and prove to be just as heroic. If you enjoy dark, edgy historical thrillers, with a sampling of other types of adventure fiction thrown in for good measure, Rebellion would be a good place to start.
Rebellion was published by HarperCollins UK on 3rd February at £14.99 (512 pages, hardcover).