Friday, September 26, 2014

Forgotten Books: REBEL by Bernard Cornwell (1993)

No, this one (unfortunately) is not about Johnny Yuma, and is not to be confused with the even more unsatisfying book of almost the same name by Johnny Yuma's creator, Andrew Fenady.

Having recently finished Cornwell's amazing Richard Sharpe series, and having read most of his other books (and enjoyed the hell out of all of them), it seemed like a good time to dig into this four-book series starring Nathaniel Starbuck in the American Civil War. Actually, the timing was terrible.

We were getting ready to leave for our week in NYC, and I needed books on my iPad to help me survive the flights. Knowing that ebook versions of most of Cornwell's novels were available through our local libraries, I checked out and downloaded this one and Copperhead (the second in the series), and figured I was set. What I hadn't reckoned on was the American Airlines flight from Hell (Portland to Dallas) and flight from Hell and back (Dallas to New York). The seats were designed for midgets, the air circulation bad and the engine noise loud (no surprises there), but we were seated next to a side passage where rude flight attendants stood yakking incessantly (and at great volume to be heard above the engine noise) about their adventures in home remodeling. They used the same space to refill their metal push carts with pop cans, which they also did with great gusto. Leg 2 of the trip involved less yakking but far more banging.

I've suffered such misery before, of course, and that was the very reason I needed good books to keep me sane. And that's where Rebel enters our story. My first unpleasant surprise was that it was all depressingly familiar. I soon realized I had attempted to read this book before, and eventually gave it up in disgust. The problem is that the hero, Nate Starbuck is (or at least was) a world-class wienie.

Most Cornwell heroes are flawed in some manner, and most live a fish-out-of-water existence, but Starbuck is simply insufferable. The son of a famous firebreathing Northern preacher, Nate is a divinity student lured South and abandoned by an evil woman. Once there, he's too embarrassed to return home, so he decides to stick around and become a rebel. While doing so he mopes about, wallowing in guilt for committing various minor sins of thought or deed.

I might have borne that if there had been other admirable characters, but everyone else in the large cast was almost equally dislikeable. There's a rich guy funding a private Legion for his own glory, his spineless and venal brother-in-law, a son so distressed by the break-up of the Union that he can't bear to fight, a prospective son-in-law who despises his prospective bride and is only in it for the money, a Southerner turned Northern spy who is only in it for the money, and a beautiful but whorish girl who leads men around by their ding-dongs.

Needless to say, these fictional creeps aggravated rather than alleviated the yakking and banging of the real life creeps, and I quit the book halfway through. Normally when that happens I slam the book shut and chuck it against a wall, but as this on my iPad I was deprived even that small pleasure.

Time out. We were so busy in New York that there was no time to read, and by the time we started home I was able to check out the Kindle version of Silent Night, a Spenser novel completed by Parker's agent Helen Brann. It was a great read, and restored my faith in fiction.

Home again, I gave Rebel another chance, and after another chapter or two lamenting Starbuck's sins, Cornwell finally got down to business. The story had been leading up the battle of First Bull Run/Manassas, and once there the author couldn't help but shine. Eventually, Starbuck and two of the other wienies found their backbones, and one of the moneysuckers suffered a satisfying death. I have since peeked ahead at the first couple of chapters of Copperhead, and the improvements appear to be permanent. I'm hoping there will be no relapses.


George said...

I'm a big fan of Bernard Cornwell, but I haven't read REBEL yet (I have copies of all Cornwell's books). Now I want to drop everything and read it!

Oscar Case said...

Haven't read it, maybe I will or maybe not if it takes so long to reach the meat.

Evan Lewis said...

I'm hoping the next three books of the series make it worth the annoyance.