March to Destruction (Book II in The Emperor’s American Series)
by Art McGrath
In addressing how he came to write about an American serving in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, author Art McGrath references his quest to discover how such a circumstance might come to be. “It was discovery through writing, and while it may sound like a cliché, it was as if Pierre Burns was standing over my shoulder telling his story. He wanted to be discovered.”
In March to Destruction, superb sequel to McGrath’s The Emperor’s American, the author indeed employs the Method philosophy to tell Burns’s story—in fact, so effectively that readers would be forgiven for believing this to be the memoir of a real historical figure. Since the series’ opening novel, Burns’s—excuse me, McGrath’s—narrative has tightened as he further employs an economy perhaps reflective of the manner in which a soldier’s self awareness might utilize minimum movement to ultimately provide maximum advancement.
Narrated by Burns, an American of French-Scots decent who had been raised to abhor the English and sought his opportunity to fight and kill them, the tale continues his deployment with the Grande Armée. This time, however, Burns moves east into Bavaria, geographically farther from his first campaign in The Emperor’s American, but still against the same foe, who bankrolls foreign armies to create havoc on the Continent. He comes under direction of the ruthless spymaster General Savary, whose summary execution of the Duc d’Enghien the previous year had triggered Russian determination to curb Napoleon’s power, and now contributes to the slightly tense interactions between them.
When the pair first meet up we sense a competition of sorts, initiated by Savary, who affably concedes a touché before they move on. The tension remains, however, and when they climb into a bell tower for lookout duty, it comes somewhat more out into the open. Savary addresses the incident that provoked the outrage of numerous European houses, to the bewilderment of Burns, whose emotional recall leads to his answer and readers’ sensation of the caution closing the scene:
“I suppose you’re thinking, Burns,” Savary said without taking his spyglass from his eyes, “if only we hadn’t had the Duc d’Enghien executed last year you wouldn’t be stuck in Central Europe looking for an Austrian army but would still be on the coast preparing to invade England, perhaps even be in England by now.”
I stopped scanning the horizon to look at the general; it seemed such an odd question out of nowhere.
“Maybe I should have done more[,” Savary suggested.]
I had heard both sides of that point argued in the officers’ mess and taverns in the camp near Boulogne, but I didn’t feel entirely adequate discussing the matter with someone so intimately involved with the affair and with the Emperor. However, Savary pressed the point.
“What would you have done, Burns?”
The question stunned me. “I think, mon Général, such matters are far above my purview as a lieutenant.”
[…] I watched a falcon dive at the roof of a house below, trying to catch a dove roosting there. The prey escaped.
McGrath moves his passage forward and simultaneously back to the approaching Austrian army and the French troops’ own onward progression. He continues to demonstrate the manner in which March to Destruction utilizes dramatic expression familiar to audiences of the stage and screen.
Throughout the book, Burns speaks of what Stanislavsky in his Moscow theater would have referred to as the American’s “super objective”: he is motivated by his deep and abiding desire to fight and kill English, taking him farther into the heart of Europe and advancing the novel’s plot. As they move on, so too the narrative carries forward, not unlike the rivers Inn and Rhine, which also make cameos, contributing to the sensation of the plot flowing amid the countryside they march through, transitioning smoothly from one circumstance to the next.
This is often achieved by McGrath’s employment of props as metaphor, contributing to the unfolding of the plot or digging at the psychology of the moment, adding layers to events that also unfold as readers advance in the story. Following an English attempt on Burns’s life and the would-be assassins’ capture, Napoleon seizes their gold, rewarding it to our lieutenant and resuming the afore-mentioned friction.
Savary caught up to me […] “I’ll need the coins as evidence.”
I raised an eyebrow, my sardonic expression not well hidden.
“It’s evidence, Burns.”
I handed one to Savary.
“I’ll need all of them, Burns.”
That’s all the evidence you need, mon Général. They’re all the same as that one. The Emperor returned them to me.”
Savary stared at me, dark eyes studying me. “It’s blood money, Burns.”
I shrugged. “What of it? It’s my blood[.]”
While there is no mention in this installment of the emperor’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, we periodically come across snippets of narrative reminiscent of the style one might find in a letter, or a conversational tone bringing readers closer to the character: “I loaded my pistols and made the rounds of the loopholes manned by the soldiers in my company, checking on each man. For a moment I almost said my men, but they really weren’t.”
Burns’s reasoned humility, periodic complaint of those who wish him ill and anguish over an unattainable love interest all remain evident in enough doses to show his decency as well as how he, too, is subject to human nature. His poor choices tend to keep him anchored, and he knows it, as well as the reality that it isn’t always genius on his part that events turn in the favor of this man’s army: “Behind every good officer, especially a junior officer, is a good NCO [non-commissioned officer], as I came to realize quickly after I joined the army.”
McGrath winds it all together with confidence, as if he is seeing everything Pierre describes over his shoulder, and the battle scenes in particular are cohesive, with thrilling precision of language that is authentic and possessed of authority, without the need to rely on military jargon. Even the longer skirmishing keeps readers on alert as they make connections, bridge transitions, and follow an internal conflict that will cause them to stay awake far, far too late into the night.
For readers who enjoyed The Emperor’s American, this is a half a year in the life of Pierre Burns that will exceed expectations based on the brilliant first part of his story: McGrath’s storytelling prowess has grown, as has Pierre himself. He continues to use dialogue to show events as they occur, and more frequently connections to indicate political nuances as well as explanation, such as his reading of a newspaper article on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Knowing this is not the last to be heard from the Baltimorean will buoy them with anticipation for those tales yet to be told.
For an audience not yet acquainted with Burns: do yourself a favor—not because you have to, for March to Destruction can indeed be read as a stand-alone. However, characters who grow with their audience and who readers can relate to, and have appeal beyond the strictures of genre have a staying power that eclipses individual struggle, such as those to achieve, belong and accept. Depriving oneself of earlier Pierre Burns is to miss out on a character whose name in coming years is sure to stand out in literature of war.
About the author…
Art McGrath lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he is a journalist as well as re-enactor and member of the Brigade Napoleon and the 3me regiment infanterie de ligne–the French 3rd Infantry regiment of the Line. March to Destruction is second in a series following the adventures of Pierre Burns through the Napoleonic Wars to the climatic Battle of Waterloo. Learn more about Art McGrath and the book at his author page and at Facebook.
The blogger received a free copy of March to Destruction in exchange for an honest review.
Author photo courtesy Art McGrath