Top critical review
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on 2 March 2016
'The Great Nation' attempts to cover France's history from 1715 (death of Louis XIV) to 1799 (Napoleon grabs power) which is ambitious, even in 600 very densely covered pages using very small letters. This is a serious book. I think the writer's grasp of the subject is impressive, but I was a bit less impressed by his ability to amuse non-academic readers. As I was reading, I could not help wondering what this book would have been like, had it been written by, say, Tim Blanning, the master of pith.
Clearly, my view is biased: I feel there is a lot of emphasis on politics (aristos in parliament infighting, or going head-to-head with the king or his 'ministry') as well as on religion, and very little about the wars. In fact, when the wars are discussed, it is primarily from the perspective of economics and politics (who paid for, and who ran the war from Paris). Again, this is my personal viewpoint - I just happen to find Maurice de Saxe's exploits more interesting than all Jansenist and anti-Jansenist arguments together, but someone else might disagree. A nice example of how the book manages to under-excite is the description of the events of 1787 (Prussia invading The Netherlands to intervene in a civil war, against France's explicit warning - France does nothing for lack of money, the monarchy suffers catastrophic loss of face, a key factor in its downfall). These dramatic events could have been nicely milked for a good story, but instead they are treated in a few lines of flat text.
In conclusion, this is a very educational book, full of useful and important information, but I wish it had been a somewhat easier read.