4 out of 5 stars
Overall, this is a very entertaining, smooth flowing, ambitious and eminently readable work of historical fiction. Gaughran takes us inside the lives of some of the lesser known figures of the various South American wars of independence (or one giant one, depending on how you look at it), juxtaposing their very well-researched activities with fictional characters serving to give us a view into the various archetypes and cultural mores of the era. The end result is a sprawling tale of military commanders and their families, farmers-cum-soldiers, slaves-cum-soldiers, mercenaries and prostitutes, and how their lives intermingle in the long struggle for freedom from the Spanish colonialists who weren’t about to give up their precious gold and silver without a fight.
Gaughran shows a thorough attention to both historical and geographical detail, and the storyteller’s knack for giving it to us straight when need be, but fudging things here and there where it suits the story the best, as all historical fiction inevitably does at some point. While some of the characters are obviously more intriguing than others, each chapter is short, so even if you’re finding yourself not immensely interested in what’s happening at that moment, you’re quick to move on to something else.
While the book is overall solidly written and the story well-told, there are of course some minor quibbles. There are some unfortunate typos and grammatical mistakes that should have been picked up prior to publication. Also, while the real historical characters feel very genuine and flushed out, some of the fictional characters are unfortunately slightly one-dimensional – the fiery Latina prostitute, the adventurous young farmhand, etc. However, I will say that what Gaughran does with these characters throughout the book – the way they interact with each other – makes up for their slight lack of well-roundedness.
That being said, I think there was maybe one or two main characters too many. One in particular, a runaway slave who joins up with the army, seems there simply to ‘represent a demographic,’ as his story really doesn’t affect the overall narrative at all. Also, I almost wish the book was much longer; while it makes for a cracking read at its current length, I would not at all have minded if the book was twice as long, and delved into much more of the political and military details. There were some minor characters who suddenly became very important for short bits here and there, then disappear; I would have liked to have learned more of them. As you can see, this is a criticism in favour of the author – I was made to want more that wasn’t there.
One final thing, though – this could be one of the most ill-suited titles I’ve ever come across. It’s a very, very poor choice, as it really has hardly anything to do with the book, and actually detracts from the novel’s epic scale. Based on the title I was expecting something like Seven Samurai, but instead it’s more like War and Peace. But naught to be done now, I suppose.
It’s still a recommended read.