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by Jeff Shaara

Pub Date: July 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-345-40492-0
Publisher: Ballantine

 First-time author Sharra comes of a distinguished lineage: His father, Michael (who died in 1988), wrote the Pulitzer Prizewinning novel The Killer Angels (1974) about the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. It's some testament to the younger Sharra's skills that his own debut, meant to be a prequel to that earlier book, can often hold its own with that work. Like Killer Angels, this new novel focuses mostly on actual figures swept up in that immense conflict: Robert E. Lee and Thomas (``Stonewall'') Jackson on the Confederate side, Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Scott Hancock on the Union, most prominently. Sharra follows these figures, and a score more, from the onset of the war up to the days just before the 1863 battle at Gettysburg. (A sequel will follow the surviving characters through to the war's conclusion.) And like Killer Angels, this novel displays an impressive grasp of the particulars of the conflict. The author projects some believable, idiosyncratic life into such familiar figures as Lee and Jackson. Lee's early disbelief in the possibility of war, and his growing, almost mystical conviction in the war's necessity and outcome, are all nicely conveyed, as is Joshua Chamberlain's harsh coming-of-age in battle. Sharra is particularly good at rendering the reluctance of many of the combatants. But while this prequel offers a robust portrait of the early years of the war, it lacks something of the impact of Killer Angels. That novel's great resonance had something to do with the intense focus on just three days of battle: Gettysburg became a particularly apt metaphor for the entire conflict. This new book, by having to plod dutifully across several years of battles, seems at times more like an impressionistic work of history than a work of fiction. Still, Sharra's wonderful command of detail and his generally shrewd depiction of character make for an impressive debut. (Author tour)