by James McGee
522 pages, HarperCollins
Review by Hereward L. M. Proops
“Rebellion” is the fourth book in the historical series featuring hard-as-nails Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood. An ex-soldier, Hawkwood's rough and ready style of policing might not be pretty but it gets the job done. Though set in the early nineteenth century, all the Hawkwood novels have possessed a peculiarly modern sensibility. Fast-paced and action packed with great attention to historical detail, the series quickly became one of my favourites and I have been eagerly awaiting this latest instalment. Whilst the books ostensibly deal with the same character they have each have tackled wildly different storylines, ensuring the series has remained fresh by avoiding recycling the same old formulaic plots.
The first novel, 2006's “Ratcatcher” was described as James Bond crossed with Sharpe, and saw Hawkwood investigating the disappearance of a scientist whose technological developments could be dangerous in the wrong hands. The sequel, 2007's “Resurrectionist”, saw Hawkwood in full-on Clarice Starling mode as he delved into a grim case involving body-snatchers and lunatic asylums. The third book in the series, 2008's “Rapscallion”, tapped into the popularity of the show “Prison Break” and saw Hawkwood go undercover on a prison-hulk ship to investigate a people-smuggling operation.
Three years after the release of the last book, McGee gives us “Rebellion” in which his brooding hero is placed in yet another dangerous undercover situation. This time, Hawkwood finds himself in the employ of the Alien Office (the forerunner of MI5) and is sent to Paris to participate in an audacious plan to bring down Napoleon. Aided by a network of undercover agents and French counter-revolutionaries, Hawkwood's latest adventure feels very much like a classic spy novel as opposed to the more outlandish James Bond to which he is so often compared. Indeed, the complicated plot and McGee's rigorous attention to detail of the real attempted coup of October 1812 means that “Rebellion” is a far more serious book than Hawkwood's previous outings. Heavy on dialogue and exposition, the novel eschews the rough and tumble tone of the rest of the series and suffers for it. Whilst McGee's skill at working his fictional characters into the true story of General Malet's daring (and possibly foolish) plot to topple Napoleon is undoubtedly impressive, one can't help but feel the novel lacks the fun-factor that made the previous books such enjoyable reads.
Perhaps it's the large cast of characters. McGee tries to juggle the vast number of conspirators, secret police and undercover agents – providing each one of them with a back-story and motivations. He's pretty successful in this, bringing the historical figures to life and making the reader cheer for the good guys and sneer at the baddies. However, with all this focus on the supporting cast, McGee seems to forget his main player. Whilst it could never be said that Hawkwood was the most original of creations, in his past outings the reader was having too much fun to question his rather clichéd character. It's during the slow moments in “Rebellion” that one really notices how shallow and one-dimensional he is. His past is still murky and shrouded in mystery. After four novels, one would hope to have learned a little bit more about him other than “he's an ex-soldier with scars on his face and he's totally bad-ass.” His sidekick in previous books, the indomitable Nathaniel Jago, is relegated to a few paragraphs and so the camaraderie and witty banter between the two old friends is missing. Sure, Hawkwood is given a few witty, dry remarks that might raise a smile but the energy and vitality of the older novels is smothered by the dense plotting and the larger cast of characters. In the early chapters of the novel we see Hawkwood learning kung-fu from a Chinese martial arts expert but he barely gets the chance to show off his new fighting skills and the final dust-up does not deliver the bone-crunching visceral thrills one would expect.
If this hadn't been a Hawkwood story, I'd probably have enjoyed it a lot more. I guess my expectations got the better of me. “Rebellion” is not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination but it was not the rollercoaster ride I've come to expect from McGee's other novels. “Rebellion” is a decent enough historical tale of espionage and intrigue and those who haven't read other novels featuring Hawkwood will find it entertaining. I'll still buy the next book in the series, I only hope McGee is able to place the emphasis back on the fun.
Hereward L. M. Proops