By itself, Napoleon's mid-1815 defeat at Waterloo, barely four months after he had escaped from Elba, was so dramatic that historians often neglect the events leading up to the climactic clash between insurgent French and Allied forces. In the engrossing chronicle at hand, however, Schom (Trafalgar, 1990, etc.) offers a detailed record of the so-called Hundred Days--a period roughly coinciding with Louis XVIII's absence from occupied Paris. Schom is also at pains to dispel any romantic notion that Napoleon was other than a self-absorbed despot whose vaulting ambition cost France dearly. Having landed near Cannes on March 1st, Napoleon moved north on the capital to reclaim his imperial throne. The military apart, precious few Frenchmen welcomed his return. Bled by more than a decade of constant conflict, the country yearned for peace. By the start of June, in fact, the usurper had been obliged to place cities throughout the nation under martial law, leaving him shy of troops to fight against the Anglo-European coalition massing for an invasion along the Belgian frontier. As Schom makes clear, though, Napoleon might well have prevailed in the three-day engagement at Waterloo bad it not been for the battlefield insubordination of three senior commanders (marshals Grouch, Ney, and Soult). While the author does a splendid job of recounting the high and low points of Napoleon's second coming, his lively narrative's real power derives from the human-scale perspectives provided by incisive profiles of the emperor's friends, foes, and family. Schom includes finely etched portraits of, among other colorful characters, Klucher, Carnot, FouchÃ‰, Napoleon's four brothers, Talleyrand, and the Duke of Wellington. A master annalist's vivid reconstruction of a turning-point in world history.