Rebel is the first book in Bernard Cornwell’s bestselling Starbuck Chronicles series set during the American Civil War. As anyone who follows this blog will know I am a big Cornwell fan, so I’m surprised I haven’t read the series until now.
Rebel is the first book of the four book series and the story starts in the summer of 1861. There have been some small skirmishes between the Yankees from the North and Confederates of the South, and the armies are massing on both sides and stand on the brink of a full-out war. The young northerner Nathanial Starbuck, estranged from his preacher father, has been left high and dry by his lover after committing a theft for her. He has travelled south to Virginia to seek work from Washington Faulconer, a wealthy landowner and friend of the family. Starbuck finds Faulconer recruiting fighters and so enlists in Faulconer’s Legion. Starbuck is a plucky but somewhat naïve character and a far reach from Cornwell’s other soldierly character the grim and cynical Richard Sharpe.
It is this novice approach to both soldiery and women that makes Starbuck an interesting character as well as increasing drive to fight for a cause, and as the story progresses the respect of a woman. As ever in these early novels, the women of the story are at turns breathtakingly beautiful or deceitful cows, or both. Cornwell does make an effort to flesh out the main love interest for Starbuck, in the form of Sally Truslow, the feisty daughter of a viscous fighter in the Legion holed up in a whorehouse in Richmond, but it does still feel to be somewhat of a caricature.
Cornwell’s real talent lies in the depiction of the relationships between different ranking soldiers on both sides of the conflict, the bloody fighting, and Starbuck’s reactions to all the new experiences he has. Cornwell’s ability to describe the technical aspects of riflery and army tactics is for this long-time reader a given, and indeed it is very familiar territory compared to the Sharpe series – there’s the usual description of dry grass set on fire my muzzle flashes, thirsty gunners and the odd ramrod shot out in haste. What makes this a banging good read in my opinion is the realisation among the gung-ho fighters that people are really getting killed, limbs are being blown off, horses are screaming in ghastly death throes and it really is rather bally horrible.
It’s not just Starbuck that makes this grim realisation that he could likely be killed in his first action and it’s the various reactions of all the characters on the battlefield which helps to flesh out the drama which might otherwise descend into a list of horrors to which the reader could actually grow numb.
With Starbuck’s brother fighting on the northerners’ side of the war the series is set up nicely for him to face some tricky dilemmas as he fights against his own people and this, as well as the coming of age themes, elevates this above just being a Sharpe adventure set in the American Civil War.