Evocative and immersive, Selin’s debut historical fiction twists Napoleon’s fate.
The real Napoleon died in 1821 at the age of 51 while in exile on the island of St. Helena. In Selin’s novel, a 51-year-old Napoleon plots and successfully executes an escape, choosing America as his haven. He makes his way aboard a privateer boat to Louisiana, where French expats and Americans alike welcome him with cries of “Vive l’Empereur!” Though enfeebled by his travels, Napoleon hasn’t lost his ambition or hunger for power; soon, he’s traveling around his new country and coming up with schemes every step of the way. International unrest allows him plenty of chances to devise new ways of achieving glory; for Napoleon, strife in France, Mexico, Canada and Texas means opportunity. The novel provides an expansive view of the political landscape, with scenes across the Atlantic effectively displaying ineffective politicians of all bents. The global view is informative, although some geographic jumps dilute the plot’s main—and most entertaining—action, which takes place in America. There, Napoleon proves himself to be a bit obtuse when it comes to social graces (“Napoleon walked through the chandeliered room, uttering words he intended to be pleasant for each lady, but which, for the most part, had the opposite effect”) but somewhat more perceptive about the differences between his former country and his new one. His observations of Americans’ basic optimism and patriotism are astute, yet his impertinence continues to aggravate his companions; for instance, he remarks that America is “a land peopled by greedy merchants.” These vivid quirks and funny faux pas bring levity to a dense, meticulously researched text in which sorting out the many events and characters requires close scrutiny. When the novel turns to scenes of action, rather than conversation, it becomes vigorous, engrossing and remarkably realistic.
A thorough, sweeping novel with seamless transitions from the real to the imagined.