Monday, April 14, 2008

What I'm Reading--Starbuck Chronicles

Here’s something I’ve probably said before, I read a lot. I just finished a set of four novels set in the American Civil War, the Starbuck Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell (sorry, I can’t give links to books because I am at work and too many Amazon clicks is not a good thing). If the author’s name is familiar to you, you might be a fan of his Sharpe’s series.

The four books cover major battles and Starbuck’s role in them; one battle is featured per book. The last of the four has Starbuck fighting at Antietam (September 1862).

Cornwell writes primarily historical fiction. His heroes are often flawed, but they get the job done. Nathaniel Starbuck is the son of a famous abolitionist preacher from Boston. He leaves Yale Divinity School and takes up with an actress who cons him into a trip to Richmond, Virginia and abandons him. A rich landowner, Washington Faulconer, rescues Starbuck from a tar and feathering at the hands of an anti-Yankee mob.

Faulconer, the father of one of Starbuck’s classmates, takes the young man under his wing. Faulconer is raising a “legion” to fight for Virginia and the Confederacy. Starbuck accepts a commission as a second lieutenant and serves as an aide. Starbuck is not sympathetic with Southern politics, but fights well nonetheless. Through various permutations, Faulconer comes to hate Starbuck, but Faulconer loses control of his “legion” while Starbuck earns promotions eventually to major.

I recommend Starbuck Chronicles to anyone who likes historical fiction. There are details that you just don’t get out of most history books. Cornwell mentions the salty, bitter taste of gunpowder. At the time, soldiers had to bite the end off of a paper cartridge and pour the powder into the muzzle of a rifled musket. The powder dried their mouths and made prolonged fighting without access to water an agony.

Black powder also clogged gun barrels making it almost impossible to jam a bullet down them after multiple firings. Dehydration made it impossible to use a battlefield expedient to clean a gun barrel, peeing down it.

Because of his divinity school and preacher’s son background, Starbuck fears that he’s damned, and that makes him fight all the harder. Like Sharpe, Starbuck does what needs to be done including shooting a fellow officer who desperately needed killing and using a cannon to end a threat from within his own ranks.

The main thing I don’t like about the four novels is that there are only four of them. Unfortunately, Cornwell stopped writing the series in 1996. His success with Sharpe led him to write more of that series to the detriment of Starbuck. I would like to read more of them.

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