In this sequel to Campbell's first novel, No Quarter, Matty Graves, now a lieutenant aboard the schooner USS Rattle-Snake, is given a mission ashore. Sent to assess the situation, he finds himself at the siege of Jacmel - the final stand of Haiti's mulattos under Alexandre Pétion who are battling freed slaves led by the legendary Toussaint L'Ouverture for control of the country. Both sides claim legitimacy; both sides claim to be champions of liberty; both sides commit unimaginable atrocities. Close-in fighting with machetes gave the War of Knives its name and Campbell describes this in detail, but battle scenes are only the beginning of the horror as Matty moves toward his own heart of darkness. Matty tries to make sense of the action and track down rumors of a plot against the United States, but nobody is what he seems. He becomes a pawn in games he doesn't understand as he struggles to sort friend from foe.

I like this book a lot, although it may not appeal to readers who are looking for straightforward naval adventure. It is not a page-turner in the conventional sense of a book that you can't put down because of the engrossing action - more accurate to say that we are pulled along in awful fascination as Matty's journey of self-discovery unfolds. Campbell's humor takes a macabre turn in The War of Knives but, as in the earlier book, it is heavily based in language, and the interplay among English, French and Creole comes to play a pivotal role in the story. In a moment of enforced idleness, Matty's friend sets out to teach him Creole and we are treated to a page and a half of Creole grammar and syntax. I was delighted, but this may not be everyone's cup of tea. Still, you should read this book. Campbell does an impressive job of mining an obscure corner of history for elemental human drama. He probes deeply into the meaning of friendship, betrayal, survival, race and language in the context of unforgettable adventure. 

Description of: The War of Knives

Author: Broos Campbell

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© 2008-2017 David Hayes (Astrodene)