Ballantine Books, 2014, 500 pp. + 22 pp. introduction, $28.00
Image Courtesy of amazon.com
I have been a fan of Jeff Shaara for some time now and was quite excited when he announced a return to the Civil War. I was even more excited when he said it was going to be a series on the western theater of the war. The third book in the series, The Smoke at Dawn, is about the campaign of Chickamauga and the conclusion of the action there. As it was with his other novels, this book centers on a series of characters and their points of view which is a formula which has worked for him in the past. This book deals with Braxton Bragg and Patrick Cleburne for the Confederacy and Ulysses S. Grant and Private Bauer for the Union. After finishing this book, the question is asked whether or not Mr. Shaara has succeeded in telling a good story.
Jeff Shaara is a New York Times bestselling author of many works including A Blaze of Glory and A Chain of Thunder, the other two books in the series on the Civil War in the West. The fourth and final book in the series, The Fateful Lightning, has just been released. Shaara is also the author of Gods and Generals, The Last Full Measure, The Steel Wave and Gone for Soldiers. These are just a few of his works centered around American Military History.
I struggled with this book. I think the main reason I struggled was because the other two in the series were quite good and conformed to a formula which worked for The Killer Angels. If there is one thing which I can point to as a weakness for this work it is the overly descriptive narrative which he produces. Throughout the text, there are page long paragraphs describing the thoughts of the commanders and soldiers; all of this is not needed in a book about a campaign. The book about the Chickamauga campaign is also one of the weaknesses. The strength of A Blaze of Glory was its focus on the Battle of Shiloh. This book dragged as it explained the slow movements of the campaign. The narrative focus of the work was also hindered on its characters. Starting with Braxton Bragg as the commander for the Confederate forces, any reader would be frustrated with him within the first one hundred pages. Understandably, Shaara is attempting to create a historically accurate feel to this work, but I’ve never hated a character as much as Braxton Bragg. Throughout all of his chapters, he was incredibly whiny when it came to the insubordination going on around him. The chapters about General Grant were useless and provided little to no narrative push as the novel continued on. The story of Private Bauer was one of the parts of the other books which I thoroughly enjoyed. In this book, I was confused by his actions. In A Chain of Thunder, Private Bauer gets transferred to another regiment by his friend who has recently become an officer. In this book, Bauer requests a transfer to a new regiment which his friend has received a commission as an officer. When I first read this, I wondered why Bauer would even do that since his friend has been quite abusive to him in the rest of the series. At the end of the book, Bauer seems to only have followed his friend as a blind pup who enjoys a little abuse. At the end of the book, Bauer’s story also feels rushed and does not truly end. It should be mentioned that Bauer is not in the final book so this is his last bow in the series. The last character who is given a viewpoint is Patrick Cleburne which had the only enjoyable chapters in the book. I looked forward to his sections of narrative and hoped that there would have been more. There are other people who were given chapters smattered throughout the book, but those four were the main focus of this book and honestly, it fell flat.
I attribute this book to be much like a poorly written Martin Scorsese film which peaks early on and drudges toward and end. By the middle of the book, I wanted it to be over and as I thought of it more and more, I realized something. In A Blaze of Glory, Shaara states that the Civil War in the West books will be a trilogy. The Battle of Shiloh would be the first book, the Siege of Vicksburg would be the second, and Sherman’s March to the Sea would be the third. The front flap of the first edition of the second book even states that this series is still going to be a trilogy. However, we get The Smoke at Dawn appearing as the third book in a Saga which now encapsulates the Civil War in the West and the only thing I can say is that this book feels forced. I’m not sure who to blame on this one, whether it be Shaara or his agent. One has to wonder if his agent forced him to write this book in order to add more during the Civil War Sesquicentennial. After reading the opening chapters of The Fateful Lightning, I have to say that The Smoke at Dawn does not feel like his usual work.
I would usually say whether or not I recommend this book. I’m not sure. I think there are people who would like this book but I am not one of them. Therefore, I do not recommend this book for Civil War fans. The narrative style was tedious in this work with overly descriptive points that did not need to be made. The characters, with the exception of one, were awful and I forced myself to get through the book. It peaks early and drudges on to the finish. My final opinion would be to tell readers that this does not feel like his usual work. It is a book which feels forced and I can already say that The Fateful Lightning is miles better than this work within the first few chapters.