In an alternative universe, James Burke, hero of Burke in the Land of Silver, is Ben Blackthorne, hero of Rob Griffith’s book Expect No Safety. Blackthorne was an existing fictional character when Griffith appropriated Burke’s real life persona for a second book, while I started with the real-life Burke, who has become steadily more fictionalised as the series has continued. That’s just one way in which the two of us have taken different approaches to a very similar subject matter.
Reading the adventures of Ben Blackthorne was a strange experience for me. Here was this man who was clearly my own James Burke, a man I thought I had come to know quite well, having often very similar adventures and yet a completely different person written in a very different style. This makes a regular review rather challenging but does give the opportunity to see how two different authors will tackle the same subject matter in very different ways.
Griffith has produced in Blackthorne a hero who wants to be a spy, rather than a soldier, but who, at least in this book, ends up uncomfortably in command of soldiers in the field. In this he is almost the exact opposite of my James Burke, who desperately wants to be a soldier but who ends up always forced back into spying. Griffith is wise to have his hero spend a lot of his time in uniform, though, because this author knows a lot about warfare in the time of Napoleon – much more than I do. His battle scenes are longer and more detailed than mine and carry a great deal of conviction. Indeed, Griffith is simply much more in command of the details of the military campaign than I ever was. We both describe the taking of Buenos Aires in similar terms, but his account of the subsequent military defeat is detailed and based on thorough research. Mine is not – being almost entirely fictional and driven by the demands of the plot. If you want a good piece of fictionalised military history, you are better off with Griffith than Williams.
Where I have a slight advantage is that I have visited Buenos Aires and I hope that James Burke roams a more realised city than does Blackthorne, but I suspect that the difference is less than I would like it to be. Griffith’s grip of the reality of street fighting in the town is excellent and the scenes in which the British are forced back through the city to make a last stand in the town square are well-written and convincing.
The real James Burke was busy seducing Ana, the wife of his local contact in Buenos Aires. Ana appears here, too, and, as with my book, it is clear that she would be more than happy to betray her husband with the British spy. Blackthorne, though, for no obvious reason, will have nothing to do with her, instead falling in love with the fictional Romero. Romero is sexy and a useful girl to have at your back in a fight and, more importantly, contributes chapters throughout the book which show the scene from the Spanish perspective. She blunders from meetings with the local bishop (and arch-villain) who blackmails her into spying for him, to plotting with an ill-assorted bunch of Spanish rebels, to fighting alongside Spanish troops. Yet, through it all, she carries on her tempestuous affair with Blackthorne and is instrumental in allowing him to escape alive. At the end of the book they have been separated and we leave Blackthorne trying to swim to the safety of a British ship. Will he make it? We have no idea: the book follows the increasingly common (and to me infuriating) practice of ending on a cliff-hanger. We do know that he will get back with Romero, though, because she tells us so. Blackstome points out, in a post-modern comment to the reader, that this somewhat reduces the suspense of the romantic sub-plot at the same time as a quite artificial bit of suspense is inserted to get us to read the next book. In the name of god and traditional publishing values, can authors please stop doing this.
Blackthorne is witty (wittier than Burke) but shares Burke’s cold-hearted ruthlessness. I like the man and his cynical take on life. His wit does cease to sparkle in some of the extended passages of dialogue that try to explain the political situation, but that’s understandable. The reader may well lose the will to live here and, unlike Blackthorne, the reader can slip off for a coffee (or something stronger) in the middle. Politics, though, isn’t really where this book is at. It’s about sex and violence, strong men and beautiful women and a fine understanding of early 19th century battlefield tactics. Griffith writes about all of these with confidence and conviction. Once you’ve read Burke in the Land of Silver, I can recommend Expect No Safety as a gripping alternative take on the same events.
A quick plug for my own book
Expect No Safety is a fine book, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Burke in the Land of Silver is a fine book too. Burke in the Land of Silver is less clearly in the military history genre and more a spy story with some war in it. Paul Collard (author of the Jack Lark books) described it as 'James Bond in breeches' and that's pretty much what I was aiming for. Just £1.99/$2.99 on Kindle.