Set in Spain and Portugal in the spring of 1809, this is to be the first in a series of Peninsular War novels based around the nascent army intelligence units.
A duel and a skirmish with French soldiers provide a dramatic introduction to the hero, James Keane, a cool, capable officer who is also a dab hand at “turning” a card game to his advantage. Expecting disgrace, he instead finds himself promoted to become an “exploring officer” – not exactly an honour, he feels, as they were not regarded as “real” soldiers, and being a spy was seen as less than gentlemanly. Keane is sent to recruit a troop from the military gaols – men whose uncommon skills in house-breaking, forgery and languages will stand them in good stead behind enemy lines.
We get powerful sequences full of visceral action, such as the recapture of Oporto from the French and an encounter with a brutal guerrilla leader. However, there is a tendency for the viewpoint to shift unexpectedly between characters mid-scene, which interrupts the flow of the narrative, and on a number of occasions characters repeat information in virtually identical phrases only a few pages apart. I felt that the introduction of Keane’s potential love interest – Kitty Blackwood, the sister of his sworn enemy – was sketchily handled and the girl herself thinly characterised.
Unfortunately, the novel was also let down by several glaring editorial errors: we are told that Keane joined up in 1798, but later references are made to his “twenty years of soldiering”. His enemy, Blackwood, is named John initially, but reappears later as Charles.
A number of loose ends were left hanging, to be picked up in subsequent adventures. Keane and his disparate band may very well improve upon acquaintance.