Kirkus: Pierce presents a fictionalized account of the Union cavalry at Gettysburg that focuses on the young Brigadier Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
Retired U.S. Navy Captain Pierce returns with his second novel in a planned trilogy about the Battle of Gettysburg, which begins at a pivotal moment in Custer’s burgeoning career. He’s 23, and it’s only been a few years since his court-martial at West Point, yet he’s managed—through heroism, say some, or through foolhardy recklessness, say others—to make a name for himself in President Abraham Lincoln’s Union Army. When readers drop into the timeline in mid-June 1863, the brash Custer is about to seize a moment that will make him famous, forcing his way into a cavalry charge led by Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick. In a phrase that will come to define Custer’s place in the lexicon, he shouts, “Promotions or a coffin!” and flies headlong into battle. The gamble pays off; Custer survives, and he’s given the promotion he craves in order to prove his worth to a wealthy judge back home in Michigan, who’s also the father of Custer’s great love, Elizabeth Bacon. Such rolls of the dice become standard for Custer, whose fortunes on the battlefield begin to take on a mythic aura referred to as “Custer’s Luck.” Although Custer (and his flowing blond curls) remains the star of the show, readers also get to spend entire chapters with, among others, Brigadier Generals David Gregg, Kilpatrick, and Elon Farnsworth—all important figures, no doubt, but none of them will captures readers’ imaginations like Custer does.
The plot proceeds in lockstep with the real-life historical events, as one would expect, but the author manages to keep things suspenseful for Civil War buffs and novices alike. The prose sings most beautifully when in motion, and the scenes surrounding Custer’s charges into battle are truly exhilarating: “An enemy bugler trumpeted, and Rebel wolf cries howled….A gray, crested wave spiked with glittering sabers started jogging down the crest.” The author also portrays moments of compassion between gentlemanly combatants—often neighbors, friends, or old schoolmates—in which readers will most keenly feel the realities of Civil War conflicts. Pierce sticks to the history of the central battle, which is indisputably monumental. At more than 600 pages, the novel does feel overlong (even for historical fiction, which tends toward considerable length), and readers will find that wading through some of the tome’s more academic minutiae will require commitment. Readers looking for a breezy, biopic-style narrative of Custer’s life may get bogged down in such material, but the book has plenty of compelling information for those who might wish to dive deeper. Fans of the author’s previous work will be happy to return and spend more time with familiar characters, and newcomers are sure to be drawn in by the central character’s strange magnetism.
An often engrossing, well-researched tale of one of American history’s most infamous generals during the most famous battle of the Civil War.
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