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Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Napoleon Concerto" by Mark Mellon (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Mark Mellon Website
Order Napoleon Concerto HERE
Read FBC review of Escape from Byzantium

INTRODUCTION: Despite reading only one short novel - or a long novella - from Mark Mellon, I was so impressed by Escape from Byzantium, that anything of interest from him became an asap. So when he graciously let me know about his new novel Napoleon Concerto available now from the small publisher TrebleHeart Books, I was very excited and I even amended my Anticipated 2010 Books post to add this one since it definitely belonged there. After I finished Napoleon Concerto, I could say that Escape from Byzantium was no fluke and Mr. Mellon delivered another winner, this time a full length novel which is somewhat more conventional than Escape but with all the goodies one expects from an alt-history romp.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Napoleon Concerto" stands at about 340 pages and follows the adventures of Captain Wolfe Sheridane, an Irish naval officer of noble origins who is under a death sentence in the United Kingdom for "treason" and makes a meager living as dance instructor and lover to ladies of nobility in the glittering Paris of 1806 when Napoleon is at his apogee. As befits the title, the novel is divided in three "movements" with musical allusions.

"Napoleon Concerto" is straight-up alternate history which starts from a simple premise: what if the engineering genius of Robert Fulton was married with the practicality and seamanship knowledge and skills of a daring "doer" and put in the service of Napoleon, with the result of actually delivering a new kind of warship, way beyond the then current state of the art?
The ending is superb and completes the main arc of the novel, however I would love to see a continuation of the story in this great alt-history Earth.

The setup of "Napoleon Concerto" is straightforward; the glittering Paris of 1806 where Empress Josephine is the godsend of all clothiers, jewelers and purveyors of fine merchandise, merrily spending from the loot her husband brought home from his European conquests, while the Emperor thwarted in at Trafalgar in his attempt to subdue England is busy crushing the continental powers.

Wolfe Sheridane knows he is a sailor, so he persistently refuses a commission in the Irish auxiliaries created by Napoleon and scraps a living as a "dance instructor" while nursing dreams of going back to sea and getting revenge against the hated British.

Robert Fulton the famous American inventor is also poor and makes a living as a draftsman; he tried once Napoleon's patience by promising a submarine who did not quite work and spending a good sum from the (at the time) First Consul' s treasury; while he is remembered as a "charlatan" by Napoleon and he even tried to sell his inventions to the English who refused him politely, Wolfe Sheridan believes in him and thinks that with some ideas of his own as an experienced seaman, they could "be in business".

Of course this needs lots of funding and with Fulton's reputation with Napoleon in tatters, while Sheridane is not taken seriously outside salons and ladies bedrooms, the two need to get inventive...

Napoleon Concerto has everything I want from alt-hist romp, with action, great memorable characters, battles, inventions, intrigue and romance.
The atmosphere of Paris 1806 is pitch-perfect - the combination of opulence based on the immense sums of money and art treasure "contributed" to the French treasury by the defeated countries, militarism, old vs new nobility, with the muted but always there thought that this glitter may prove to be temporary since it ultimately depends on battlefield fortunes is so immersive that the novel is worth reading for that only.

is also pitch-perfect described, from his well documented mannerisms, to his easily changeable moods; a very smart tyrant, but an ambitious and jealous one that would not let anyone eclipse him. Later in the novel, the Emperor becomes a main character and almost outshines Wolfe, though the Irish Captain has a few surprises of his own. Notable ministers like Talleyrand and Fouche spin their webs carefully and our heroes have to navigate a very careful path if and until they deliver the tangible results the Emperor wants, though too much success comes with a considerable risk of its own as noted above.

Later, when the action moves to actual engineering and then to sea, again the author is very convincing and even the romance part is pretty well handled. Wolfe Sheridane is a great character and the epitome of the "adventure hero", while Fulton as the genius scientist with a penchant for living
well and the consequent need for wealth that comes from that is not quite the stereotype "unworldly scientist", though he is far from practical outside his field.

Of the opposition, the main villains are clearly described as such from the beginning, but there are some surprise ones and there is a lot of subtlety especially in the portrait of British seamen who are nothing but courageous even against powerful odds.

The novel is also a page turner that you do not want to put down until its superb conclusion. A highly recommended strong A from me and another great story from Mark Mellon.



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