Thursday, February 03, 2011

Book review: Rebellion, by James McGee

James McGee’s gritty and intrigue-filled Rebellion sees former soldier and Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood plunging confidently into his latest assignment. Transferred temporarily to the Alien Office, he agrees to undertake a clandestine mission whose true purpose even he doesn’t know. His London-based superiors feel that his fluent French, military background, and adroitness with disguise make him the ideal candidate for their needs.

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).


  1. Sounds very interesting! Great review, Sarah. Thanks to you :) I just ordered this series.

  2. Oh Sarah, your incisive, enjoyable review has utterly sold me on this book, and I am not even fond of the Napoleonic Wars as a setting. That the hero "doesn’t emerge unscathed" from this "dark, edgy thriller", which has a few "skilfully evoked", "heroic" female characters clinched it for me.

  3. Wow, different! I have to admit, the cover threw me a little bit--made me think of the French Revolution, and then wonder if we weren't headed for the American Revolution instead, as it's so often referred to as the Rebellion.

    I'm deeply intrigued by the review, but I wonder if the publisher could have nailed either cover or title on this one a little better. Just a meandering thought....

  4. This female definitely enjoys dark historical adventure. This looks very interesting!

  5. This book was an attempt to branch out a bit because historical adventure usually isn't my thing - but I quite enjoyed it. And before I read Rebellion, I'd never heard about the attempted coup against Napoleon. Afterwards I had fun discovering which characters were historically based. Many of them were.

    The guillotine on the cover represents the threat Hawkwood and co. faced if they were caught. And the title... I should've mentioned that the previous books in the Hawkwood series are called Ratcatcher, Resurrectionist, and Rapscallion.

  6. Funny -- as thought initially it would be the American Civil War, which also is called the 'Rebellion,' by General Grant, among others.

    Then I thought the War of 1812, in which I've been immersed for months, the parts involving the the Chesapeake, the Indian Wars in the southwest (meaning then Alabama, etc.) the Gulf, and finally New Orleans -- in which Napoleon had no litte effect too. That fellow got his licks in one way or another over the entire globe.

    This sounds good. I like good 'male' historical adventure very much as long as it's not self-consciously, or smirkingly, crude.

    Love, C.

  7. Ratcatcher--now there's a title. You know it's interesting with that picture of a guillotine. I guess I should logically know that they went on using it for many years, but my brain automatically pegs it to A Tale of Two Cities and Madame Defarge. Hence, the association with the French Revolution.

    Your fault, Charlie Dickens! :D

  8. Thanks for a very nice review.

  9. Thanks for the excellent review, Sarah. I'm looking forward to this one I've enjoyed all the others in the "Hawkwood" series, which are all dark, fast-paced historical thrillers. James McGee (a pseudonym for author Glen Moy) does do his research. "Rapscallion", which I reviewed here, was inspired by an article by Australian historian Dr Gavin Daley about the role of smuggling during the Napoleonic Wars. (I've added a link to the original article in my review if anyone's interested).

  10. Thanks for your comments, everyone!

    Rebellion is a nondescript title for a novel about war... but if it had to start with R, I'm not sure what else would have worked. And you're right, Lucy, the guillotine automatically calls up images of the French Revolution, even though - if I'm to believe Wikipedia - it was in use in France through 1977!

    I enjoyed your review of Rapscallion, Annis, and it fills in some gaps in Hawkwood's backstory that were hinted at in Rebellion. McGee/Moy seems to have a knack for bringing to life lesser-known episodes from Napoleonic history.

  11. Sounds interesting! I will have to see if I can get a copy at some point.