Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin

Title: Napoleon in America
Author: Shannon Selin

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Speculative / 19th Century / Napoleon Bonaparte / Historical Figure Fictionalized / New Orleans / Mexico)
Publisher/Publication Date: Dry Wall Publishing (1/2014)
Source: The author.

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: An imagined year when Napoleon escapes his exile and rouses an army in the US, bound for Mexico.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, What's in a Name?

Do I like the cover?: I adore it. It's reminiscent of the Francois-Joseph Sandmann painting of Napoleon in exile.

I'm reminded of...: James Mace

First line: As sun broke over the black wart in the Atlantic, a banging on the door disturbed the island's governor at his toilet.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I love novels about Napoleon.

Review: This inventive, engrossing novel imagines Napoleon's escape from his exile on the island of St. Helena in 1821 which lands him in America.  Reunited with former army officers and surrounded by sympathetic Americans, Napoleon repeatedly protests of his desire to be a simple citizen -- but the lure of a new kingdom, Mexico, becomes too much to resist. 

I was immediately taken with this novel. Selin's writing style (you can read an excerpt at the author's website) sucked me in from the first page.

The narrative is peppered with diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, and other missives to round out the story as we experience it. (I just died of happy reading the diary entry by John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, wrestling with the news of Napoleon's request for asylum.) The feel of the book is slightly 19th century, which I enjoyed; the writing is wordy and philosophical.

While the cast of characters is huge, there's enough context in the story to understand who is who if one doesn't want to flip back to the list of characters included at the end.

More than once, I had to remind myself this was wholly fictional, not a fictionalized account of events that really happened. The strength of this book comes from Selin's ability to keep this story from being ludicrous, despite the outlandish plot. Her Napoleon is slightly delusional and very ambitious, surrounded by supporters and allies who bolster and encourage him.  Every decision made felt realistic and possible, and I read hungrily to see just how things would end. (I found myself kind of rooting for Napoleon to be successful!)

Included are two pages of sources and seven pages of who's who. There's no historical note as the events of the novel are entirely fictional; historically, Napoleon dies in May of 1821, without having escaped from St. Helena, while Selin starts the novel just a few months earlier, in February.

A fantastic read for fans of French history and those who like 'what if' kind of stories; any fan of Napoleon will want to read this, too, and imagine a world where this might have happened.  Those new to speculative fiction should give this a try -- it's dangerously addictive!


  1. Great Review! I have to admit, I do not like Napoleon. I believe for all he ruthless deeds he caused, he got his just desserts by remaining in exile in St. Helena.

    1. Ha! Well, he doesn't exactly get his comeuppance in this one so you probably wouldn't be satisfied. ;)

  2. I struggle enough with true historical fiction, I don't think I want to try this.

  3. I've really enjoyed what little alternate history I've read and would love to get to more. I also enjoy books that involve famous historical figures, so this sounds great to me!

    1. Hope you get a chance to try it -- was really so good!