Military novelist turns to WWI and fits its sprawling destruction into his usual flat template.
After two Civil War sequels to his late father’s The Killer Angels and a pair of American Revolution novels, Shaara (The Glorious Cause, 2002, etc.) leaps to the 20th century, and, true to form, presents a cast of characters chosen for their ability to be in exciting places at exciting times, not to mention a tendency to declaim at some length about the epic struggle they’re undertaking. Of the four main players, though, only one, American private Roscoe Temple, is involved in the trench warfare that’s the hallmark of WWI. Most of the story’s turgid first half is taken up by the at-a-distance conflict between Lafayette Escadrille ace Raoul Lufbery and Germany’s Baron von Richthofen, something that could have been thrilling at a third the length but here seems only to mark time until 1917, when American ground forces finally join the fray. At that point, the fourth character, American Expeditionary Force commander General Pershing, comes on stage, the better to expound at length to himself (in interior monologues) and to subordinates (like a young General Patton) about strategy. Beyond some canned textbook tidbits, there’s not much in the way of historical analysis here—unlike his father Michael, Jeff has little knack for rendering a historical period’s mindset or the inner forces that drive its people—the better to churn out more square-jawed action for the armchair general set, who will likely snap this one up as well. A reader gets no sense of the generation-destroying despair that this war’s vast and mechanized slaughter unleashed. Instead, there’s only a disturbingly cozy regurgitation of military historical clichés leading up to the glorious moment when America saves the day (again).
Shaara’s admittedly impressive command of the details serves less to illuminate a titanic struggle than to keep readers comfortably at a distance.