Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: A Fine Likeness by Sean McLachlan

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Normally, I'm not really that interested in the American Civil War. I understand the basics of the war - the lead-up, the battles, the conclusion and the aftermath - but for one reason or another I've never felt the need to do a deep dive into this time period. Because of this, I've never had a strong interest in reading any fiction relating to the ACW, such as The Killer Angels or Bernard Cornwell's Nathaniel Starbuck chronicles.

Even with an only lukewarm interest in the conflict, I was intrigued by Sean McLachlan's A Fine Likeness when I first heard about the book. A "Civil War Horror" novel written by a seasoned archaeologist, travel writer, and historical reference author sounded peculiar enough to warrant a second glance, and although it took me a while to circle around to reading it, I'm now kicking myself for waiting so long, because it's one hell of a good yarn.

The book starts off near Columbia, Missouri with a skirmish between Captain Addison's militia company and Rawlins' Rangers, a six-man band of "bushwhackers". The term refers to small bands of guerrilla fighters who operated in many states during the war, launching ambushes and raids and falling back into the wilderness, where the men lived off the land and the generosity of sympathizing civilians. Like the guerrilla fighters of the Napoleonic wars and WW2, these "combatants" occupied a weird middle ground between organized military units and simple armed civilians taking action against their enemies. Missouri was a state absolutely infested with bushwhackers, and due to the fieldcraft of these guerrillas, and their habit of carrying upwards of four six-shot revolvers apiece (opposed by men carrying single-shot long arms), these small bands were often able to cause a degree of havoc and mayhem disproportionate to their numbers.

What starts off as a small battle between Union militia and Confederate guerrillas grows into something a lot more deadly and dangerous when Jimmy Rawlins, the "Captain" of Rawlins' Rangers, gets his band involved with Bloody Bill Anderson, one of the most violent and dangerous guerrilla fighters of the Civil War. I don't want to give away any of the book's twists and turns, but suffice to say the small conflict between militia and bushwhacker is only the facade of a much larger, far more diabolical battle taking place, one that stretches beyond the boundaries of our physical world. Some of the characters are hinted to be far, far more than they appear, and there is a greater "mythos" for lack of a better term, lurking just below the surface of the story.

This is a whole other aspect of A Fine Likeness that should be discussed. At first I thought this was going to be an ACW "ghost story". Because of the war's incredibly brutal nature, and the way it coincided with the rise of spiritualism, mentalism, and the more pseudo-scientific theories regarding ghosts and the spiritual world, there were many people during and after the war who tried contacting dead friends and relatives, and a great deal of fraud was committed by charlatans who preyed upon those who sought them out.  Hand-in-hand with this, a lot of post ACW horror fiction, especially Southern horror, revolved around ghosts and hauntings. So, I figured the author was throwing his hat into the ring, so to speak, and writing a ghost story tied to the Civil War.

While the story does have elements dealing with ghosts and spirits, that's just the tip of the supernatural iceberg, and as I said above, the story makes it clear that there are forces - both sinister and benevolent - at play in a much larger and more active cosmology. This was a pleasant surprise for me, and I feel it shifts the book from being a "Civil War ghost story" to something a lot more like a Weird West tale, similar to the Weird fiction of the 30's written by authors like Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft, tales that blend history and the supernatural in a way that could be considered "Pulp Horror", although I don't feel that this book really falls into the category of "Pulp". Indeed, I think the only weakness of A Fine Likeness, if there is one, is that I'd be hard-pressed to pin this book down in any sense of a traditional genre. I don't really consider it traditional horror, but the supernatural elements definitely take it out of the realm of historical fiction. I think the author was actually very smart in independently publishing this book, because I can't imagine a traditional publishing house attempting to market this book.

Which reminds me to set any potential reader's fears to rest and point out that this novel is very well-written. The author has a long career writing non-fiction works for established publishers such as Osprey, and that professionalism carries over into this book. I didn't notice any spelling or formatting errors, and the prose overall is very deft - descriptive without being exhaustive, colorful without being overwrought. The author handles both action and dialogue quite well, and every character has their own well-considered "voice".

In conclusion, if you like historical fiction with action and a touch of the supernatural, you cannot go wrong with A Fine Likeness. It's a great novel, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel.


Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting and unusual.

BTW, The Killer Angels is really worth your time. One of two or three must-read ACW novels, whether you are a buff or not.

Jim Cornelius

Hank Brown said...

This one is on my TBR pile. Sounds really off the beaten path. Thanks for reviewing, Jack.

Sean McLachlan said...

Thanks for your kind words about my novel. I actually laughed out loud when you said, "I can't imagine a traditional publishing house attempting to market this book." That's exactly what several publishers said in their rejection slips!

Charles Gramlich said...

THe Killer Angels is up on my "special" shelf where I keep the books that have been most amazing to me. Loved it quite much.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, Bloody Bill Anderson was pretty damn diabolical in any case...

Jim Cornelius