A Ballad of Love and Glory, by Reyna Grande****

“We Irish know what ’tis like to be oppressed by an aggressive neighbor.”

Reyna Grande can really write. This is the first of her novels I have read, but it surely won’t be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

A Ballad of Love and Glory encompasses two genres, romance and historical fiction. It’s the story of John Riley, an Irish immigrant to the USA in the mid-nineteenth century, who is met at the dock by military recruiters that want him and his compatriots to serve in the US army, fighting the war against Mexico. Riley arrives half-starved and worried sick about the fate of his family that he left behind. The promise of soldier’s wages is enough to persuade him, and he enlists.

It’s also the story of Ximena, a Mexican naturopath whose husband is killed by Texas Rangers. She follows the army to help care for the wounded; she and Riley are drawn together.

As for me, I am drawn to this tale by my love of military history, whether nonfiction or fiction, and by the unconventional point of view regarding the U.S. land grab. At the time of the annexation of Texas, followed by the war against Mexico, most Americans accepted the official explanation and believed that the war was initiated by Mexican aggression toward U.S. citizens across the border. Some, including an up-and-coming politician named Abraham Lincoln, saw threw the ruse and understood that the whole thing was a pretext on the part of the US designed to capture Texas, California, and points in between. This is the background information that I bring with me as I begin reading this novel.

The title and book cover both focus on romance, and if a friend hadn’t mentioned this story, I would have passed it by; most romance is too sappy for my tastes. But an entire brigade of Irish immigrants that jump sides in the midst of the conflict and fight, instead, for Mexico? I have to read this!

Grande honors historical truth in her storytelling, and as such, this is one sad read. The Irish soldiers are treated more savagely by the American-born officers than I had known, and Grande gives us plenty of detail. And although I know, when I begin reading, exactly who wins this war, it’s hard to face the inevitable once I am bonded to these characters.

That said, I do think Grande does a better job with the military end of this thing, and of developing John Riley in other regards, than romance. There’s this tension between Riley and Ximena, because he is a married man with a child back home—and I can guess immediately how this conflict will be resolved. Until that resolution, the tension, part of the “honor” mentioned in the title, is drawn to nearly ridiculous proportions; at one point, as the two are straining passionately toward one another, they both stop simultaneously, whip out their rosaries, and start saying Hail Mary’s together. I threw back my head and laughed!

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful novel. If you enjoy historical fiction; unconventional points of view; working class fiction; or tales of forbidden love, this book is for you. If you are in need of a good ugly cry, this book is your catalyst.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire, by Conn Iggulden*****

Though I usually review books that are either newly published or are about to be, once in awhile I reach back and discuss books that have been around for awhile. This one is excellent, and I consider it unmissable.

This book is phenomenal. How much do any of us know about Genghis Khan?

One thing I learned in discussion with my spouse, who is a Japanese citizen, is that whereas we from Western cultures pronounce the warrior’s name with a hard G, Asians–including the Mongolian culture from which the Khan emerged–pronounce it softly, like a J. I figure Mongols know how the name should be pronounced, so I have begun to pronounce it that way, too.

I wanted to read this series, or at least the first entry, because although I have read at least something about most of the greatest warriors in the world over time, I had read nothing about Genghis. We have a nonfiction tome, but it’s the sort of slog one only undergoes out of desperation, or as assigned coursework.

The first two or three chapters seemed fine, but not great. I wasn’t even sure if I would read the rest of the series. By the halfway point, however, my mind had changed completely! I found myself online doing image searches for the housing, clothing, and other parts of the nomadic life.

I have purchased the next in the series. I rarely buy books for myself, because I have so many already and have such constant access to galleys that it isn’t necessary; yet now and then, there’s a book I’ve gotta have, and that’s how I feel about this series.

Highly recommended for those that are interested in this time and place in history; in Genghis himself; or in military history.

Black Cloud Rising, by David Wright Falade*****

Black Cloud Rising, the historical novel that’s already been excerpted in The New Yorker, is the book I’ve always wished someone would write. Author David Wright Falade tells the story of the African Brigade, a unit of former slaves tasked with rooting out pockets of Confederate guerilla fighters in the Tidewater region of Virginia and in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. This outstanding work of historical fiction is one of the year’s best surprises, and it’s for sale now.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Press for the review copy.

Sergeant Richard Etheridge is our protagonist; he is the son of a slave and her master. This is the only small criticism I have here; it seems like every time I see a fictional former slave that goes on to do momentous things, he’s the master’s progeny. However, Sergeant Etheridge did exist in real life; I have been unable to discover whether this aspect of his beginnings is fact or fiction. If it’s fact, then I withdraw my objection.

One way or the other, this is nevertheless a fantastic novel. In fact, since I taught the American Civil War for many years and have never heard if this sergeant, I wonder, initially, if his story is even true. But a little research shows Etheridge to be have been real. I had known about the existence of this brigade, but the only aspect of it I’d seen was–oh how embarrassing—from the movie, Glory, in which an all-Black military unit volunteers to lead the charge on Fort Wagner. But there, the story is told not from the viewpoint of infantrymen, but from the Caucasian officer chosen to lead them. It’s not as if I failed to do research; but during my years in the classroom, I couldn’t find a single thing that reflected the memories and experiences of the former slaves that fought for the Union. And although this book comes too late to help me teach the upcoming generation, it will be greatly useful to teachers that come after me.

At the outset of our story, Richard approaches his master at dinner, a thing that is generally not done, to tell him that he is going to enlist in the Union Army. Because he is the master’s son, he is able to get away with this, and this has also allowed him to learn to read and write, which in turn makes him officer material. Richard is a well developed character; it is wrenching to see his loyalty and devotion to his father, as well as to his half-brother Patrick, who is the legitimate heir to his father’s estate. Repeatedly the narrative points out that “the son will always seek out the father,” and it makes me ache for this young man. Nevertheless, he does go to war against his father’s wishes, and he demonstrates leadership and skill under pressure.

There is one visceral scene in which the Caucasian master of a plantation who is linked to the guerilla Confederates, is dragged to his own whipping post and beaten by his former slaves. I find it deeply satisfying. In the end and after much bloodshed, the unit is successful in its mission to clear the area of the guerillas that threaten the Union effort.

In many ways this is a coming of age story, but those that will love it most are those that enjoy military history and all things related to the American Civil War, as well as those interested in the Black struggle. It’s a great selection for Black History Month, but it will make excellent reading during the other eleven months as well. Highly recommended.

Steel Fear, by Brandon Webb and John David Mann*****

Steel Fear is the first in a series by Brandon Webb and John David Mann. It’s billed as a “high-octane thriller,” and that’s what it is. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

Before starting the novel, I flipped to “About the Authors,” which is at the end of the book. Webb is a retired SEAL himself, boasting a list of awards as long as your flippers. He is a top level frog, which is a combat diver, and he not only is trained as a sniper, but has been in charge of training other snipers. Suffice to say, he is qualified to write a book like this and knows what he’s talking about. This thriller took ten years to see publication, and a good part of that delay was getting one aspect after another of his description of the aircraft carrier, The Abraham Lincoln, cleared by the Pentagon. Mann is not ex-military, but has an impressive list of achievements in the arts.

Our protagonist is Finn, a SEAL who’s being sent back to the states on The Abraham Lincoln. He doesn’t know why; nobody on the boat does, either; and he cannot reach anyone that can enlighten him. This keeps Finn off balance, the reader doesn’t know whether Finn is trustworthy, so that keeps the reader off balance, too. We meet him when Monica Halsey, a helicopter pilot who is also an important character, is sent to pick him up. Two men approach the helicopter, and they are described as a large man that looks like a mountain lion, and a little guy that looks like a marsupial. Finn is the marsupial, and when I learn that he is a funny-looking little guy, it endears him to me. When we see him disappear on board ship, blending in, seeing and hearing things he isn’t meant to, it’s all the more impressive. I still don’t know if I should like this guy, yet I do.

The crew is reeling from a horrible, unexplainable accident that took the lives of a helicopter crew; soon after, there is a suicide, and then another. Suicide, we learn, is at epidemic levels in the military, and so at first, most people don’t question it; but both suicides are a little too similar, and Halsey smells a rat. So does Finn.

At the outset, there’s a great deal of description of the aircraft carrier, and at first I feel impatient to get on with the story, but soon I can see that the setting is very important, and the description is necessary to understanding it. Webb does a fine job with it, and it’s a good thing, because when I ran a Google search for images, I got mostly air.

National security indeed.

The chapters are very short, and the point of view changes constantly, with Finn and Monica occupying more space than other crew members. Between the shifting viewpoints; Finn’s anxious attempts to find out where he’s going, what his status is, and why he’s being sent away; and Monica’s urgent need to know why her friends are dead, and if anyone else she cares about is next, I am kept on the edge of my seat. Still more deaths follow, and by the halfway mark, my heart is beating a little quicker, and I know better than to let myself read it at bedtime. Fortunately, despite the deaths, which continue of course, there isn’t a lot of gore, and I happily made this book my lunchtime companion. Once I got near the climax, there was no putting it down till the thing was done.

I tend to be leery of books written by military folks, because sometimes there’s a right-wing overtone to the prose that grates against my own values. This isn’t a problem here.  Instead, this is a rock solid opening to a promising new series, and I can’t wait to read the next one. Highly recommended to all that love the genre.