Humphreys takes the main character of the “The Rivals”----a quick witted British soldier of wealth named Jack Absolute---and fleshes him out with codebreaking skills and knowledge of and sympathies for the natives of North America. At the starting point of the novel Jack Absolute, Absolute himself is pushing past middle age and trying to grow beyond his youthful days of wild adventure. He’s shifted his focus from pioneering and soldiering in the Americas to running business ventures in India, both to make some money and to renew honor to his family his own disreputable father lost decades earlier.
But this is also the midway point of the American Revolution. Absolute is pressured to drop his business activities by the British General Burgoyne, who wants to employ Absolute’s skills in codebreaking and espionage as well as exploit Absolute’s contacts with the native population of the Americas. With his Mohawk friend Até in tow, Absolute sets out to convince the various tribes to join with Britain in suppressing the revolt of the colonials. Along the way he trips through the battle of Saratoga, falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a colonial businessman and, finally, uncovers the main plot. Through his codebreaking Absolute learns of a secret organization called the Illuminati that seeks to cause destruction and demoralization on both sides of the conflict in the colonies, enabled them to pick up the pieces and rebuild the society with their own ideals.
Humphreys handles the historical aspects fairly well for what is essentially a pop-novel. We here state side don’t often read things from the Brit point of view of the Revolution, and he does a good job getting across those feelings. Seperatists, rebels, traitors….many of the same name calling and finger pointing that occurred then occured again during the US Civil War. The battle details don’t shy away from portraying death and violence, but do so without glorifying it or making it excessively gory. Appearances by minor historical characters like James Sheridan, General Burgoyne and Benedict Arnold add some thin layers of authenticity and color to the tale. Even the Illuminati plot makes some nice references to Masonic Rites and to the societal revolt in Bavaria led by Adam Weishaupt.
You do have to suspend a bit of disbelief when it comes to Absolute himself. All of his narrow escapes and fantastic skills reminds me of no other character more than James Bond----not surprisingly this novel was subtitled the 007 of the 1700’s when it first appeared in the UK a few years ago. He openly supports the ideas of the colonials but can’t separate himself from his loyalty to the crown. This unique fence sitting makes his perspective on the revolution fresh in that he sees villains on both sides of the conflict and provides a nice layer of complication to both is character and the direction of the novel.
The weakest aspect of the novel is that it tries to be all things to all people. The Illuminati plot lot functions like a mystery; while Humphreys works in some nice red herrings when we finally get to the master of the diabolical plot it is somewhat of a letdown (I won’t say exactly why, since that would spoil the ending). The historical aspects are nicely done, but probably don’t dig deep enough for someone wanting a full portrayal of the times and all the issues involved in the Revolutionary War.
The main reason---really the only reason---to read this novel is to watch Absolute in all his exploits: slick escapes colonial jails, codebreaking, sword duels. No matter how improbable they all are, they sure are fun to read.