One of my favorite writers of historical fiction kicks off his Civil War series with this remarkably tepid tale. A number of flaws make themselves manifest over the course of the book, the foremost of which is an unlikable hero. Cornwell seems to have decided to take the hero of his wildly successful Napoleonic era series, Richard Sharpe, and make his new hero come from the exact opposite background. Unfortunately, while one is naturally inclined to root for an orphaned, gutter-bred, ill-mannered rogue who rises through the ranks due to sheer merit, one is much less likely to root for the privileged scion of a Boston abolitionist preacher who joins the Confederate forces as an act of rebellion against his strict upbringing! Indeed, while Sharpe grows and learns a little in each book, the only thing Starbuck seems to learn in this first volume is to devalue human life! Indeed, his overall transformation seems rather forced.
It doesn't help that Cornwell appears to be creating the same setups as in the Sharpe series, giving his hero a dangerous and loyal sidekick, a passel of idiotic officers, with one or two sprinkled in who recognize the hero's value. There's even a tempting woman to lead all the men astray! It's also rather slow and plodding compared to the Sharpe books, although granted, it appears to be designed more as a prelude to the series than anything else.
The story follows 20ish Nate Starbuck, as he enlists in a local Confederate force being mustered by the fabulously wealthy and dangerously vain father of his best friend. The book sees the slow build to war, as the "Faulconer Legion" equips and readies itself, before finally getting into action at the Battle of Manassas (aka Bull Run 1). The battle/action scenes are adequate, but not as gripping as his Napoleonic stuff. I suspect this may be because the Civil War is more familiar to us Americans-we've seen it in print, on TV, in film, even reenacted!-whereas the Napoleonic battle has the allure of something new.
As always with Cornwell, there's a ton of interesting little details, and various historical figures popping in and out of the plot. He does seem to play rather loose with a number of facts, but it is fiction after all. I'll read the next in the series, but this one was a serious disappointment for this Cornwell fan!