The War of Knives
The year is 1800, and the Haitian revolution has become a brutal civil war. Lieutenant Matty Graves of the U.S. Navy schooner Rattle Snake is ordered ashore to gather intelligence vital to American stability. The rest is pure action as Matty turns guerilla soldier, is captured, escapes, and returns to free his friend, the revolutionary soldier, Juge. But the action doesn’t end there. The best is yet to come as Matty, sans culottes, takes command in the final sea battle that sees the defeat of two enemy vessels and the sinking of the Rattle Snake.
The War of Knives wants to be a funny story with a likeable, truehearted, and bumbling hero. And if the reader can overlook the hideous atrocities that stamp the war for Haitian independence – which the author represents accurately – they can keep a smile for Matty’s misadventures. You need an appreciation for gallows humor and slapstick to really enjoy this tale.
A troublesome aspect is the narration. Matty tells the tale, yet he seems to have two voices. As narrator he speaks grammatically, is articulate, and has an extensive vocabulary. Yet when he speaks aloud his speech is rough, ungrammatical and colloquial. His actions are characteristic of his bumpkin self, though sometimes he acts like a competent sailor. The split makes for confusion and takes some of the enjoyment from the story.
Nonetheless, Campbell’s history is sound and woven smoothly into the story – which is peppered with Creole and French phrases. He is at his best in naval battle scenes, where his knowledge of sailing ships and nautical dialogue shines. In the end The War of Knives is a rollicking good yarn that makes you laugh and cry – a slice of life, one might say.