A hectic, often compelling first novel set in a decidedly exotic (and violent) world. Martin, a British journalist, wrings considerable drama from a little-studied element of the American Revolution, when blacks, many of them former slaves and some only recently arrived from Africa, were recruited as soldiers by both sides, playing key roles in several campaigns. In departing, the British offered transport to any black man who could prove that he had fought for the King. Even so, England proved little more accepting of the soldiers than America had been, and the result was a large, embattled, and destitute black population in London. Martin focuses on the fates of three ex-soldiers there: Georgie, a mysterious con man who quickly becomes an influential thief; Buckram, an ex-cavalryman reduced to begging; and William, who makes a slender living on the stage. The author's portrait of the grim underside of late 18th-century London is detailed, grisly, and convincing: the whores, hustlers, thieves, and assassins who populate that feculent underworld are all vividly depicted. William, yearning to rescue the wife and children he left behind in New York, and Buckram, hopelessly in love with a young black woman dedicated to fighting for her race, are tough, complex figures. Georgie, however, remains an enigma, and his yearning (to live in a free black city) is never explained. Much of the slender plot has to do with Georgie's shrewd attempt to swindle a loathsome and very wealthy American slaver, which leads to a climax in the US embassy that mixes guffaws and gore. Each of the three men gets something of what he's desired. But it's for the robust portrait of the horrors of slavery in 18th-century America, and of the sufferings of the down-and-out in London, that Martin's narrative lingers. Despite a plot that often leaps when it should walk, and some patches of too-exuberant prose: an impressive debut—angry, vigorous, and moving.
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