Desperate Valour is the sequel to Timothy Ashby’s 5* bestseller Ranger, though it works perfectly well as a ‘stand alone’. It follows the adventure of Major Alexander Charteris (known as ‘Chart’), a mixed-race, English-educated son of an aristocrat and a West Indian slave, commissioned as an officer of the British Army’s 1st West India Regiment. Because of his background and experience, Chart is sent undercover into the racial melting-pot that is New Orleans in 1815. His mission is to contact British agents there and collect any information that will help the British in their planned invasion and annexation of Louisiana – a plan that will come to a head in the Battle of New Orleans.
Chart duly goes under cover with his faithful sergeant-major Sori, but finds his mission complicated by the beauty of his contact and the unexpected dangers that they have to face; especially by the presence of an old enemy, Julian Fedon, capable of seeing all too clearly through Chart’s disguise. But he must continue his vital mission in spite of everything as he observes the preparations being put in place by the intrepid Americans under the command of ‘Old Hickory’, General (later President) Andrew Jackson. He even risks further danger by enlisting in one of Jackson’s militias – until the time comes when he must report back with details of what he has discovered. On the horns of a dilemma, he is forced to return to his command, uncertain of his beautiful contact’s fate at Fedon’s cruel hands.
But then the battle begins and the tone of the narrative shifts subtly and effectively. Step by step the assault on New Orleans is described from Chart’s increasingly horrified point of view. The research here is so impressive, the writing so immersive, the analysis of one situation after another so persuasive that I can only compare this with George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books. Flashman with all that awesome historical understanding but with the comic element replaced by almost unbearable tension. With Chart, we see the inadequate preparations, the failure of senior Naval commanders to understand the requirements of warfare on land, their arrogant dismissal of suggestions from their junior but more experienced Military colleagues, the dogged bravery of both besiegers and besieged – the one attacking across open country in serried ranks with banner, fife and drum, the other with cannonballs, grape shot and sharpshooters behind hastily built but unexpectedly effective breastworks. The lives of men who had followed Wellington through Spain and played a sizeable part in the defeat of Napoleon, thrown away by ignorance, intransigence and downright stupidity.
As my comparison with Flashman makes clear, I hope, this is storytelling of the highest order, immersive, atmospheric and persuasive. The characters are gripping, their situations and relationships convincing. The pacing is immaculate, building as it does to that climax which simply gets more and more tense until Chart is catapulted into a final section where the tension tightens a seemingly impossible notch tighter. I could not recommend this book more highly.
Timothy Ashby is the author of Desperate Valour, historical novel set during the War of 1812.
Peter Tonkin is a bestselling novelist and author of Shadow of Treason.