Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Napoleon's improbable rise from a Corsican soldier to French emperor has often been address in alternate history, from Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château's 1836 novel Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812-1823: histoire de la monarchie universelle (which may be the first alternate history novel) to Naomi Novik's more recent "Temeraire" series. In Napoleon Concerto, Mark Mellon introduces the Irish Captain Wolfe O'Sheridane and his comrade the American Robert Fulton to Napoleon's court in the early nineteenth century.
Although the historical Fulton is living in France and seen as a failure after an earlier attempt to introduce steam power to the empire failed, O'Sheridane sees the promise of Fulton's experiments and decides to pitch a proposal to Napoleon for a steam-powered battleship. Mostly through the force of his personality, and carefully playing up to both Napoleon and Josephine, O'Sheridane receives his commission and he and Fulton set out to create their prototype vessel, the Actium.
Much of the novel hinges on Mellon's character of Wolfe O'Sheridane, who is presented as being a rogue, and acknowledged as such throughout Paris. However, as Mellon depicts him, many of O'Sheridane's roguish qualities don't shine through. O'Sheridane is motivated by vengeance and national (Irish) pride in his vendetta against the British throne. Although there is a certain selfishness in this vendetta, since his success could mean the restoration of his family estates, the ideological motivation is much stronger. O'Sheridane also never shows the cynical demeanor often associated with the type of rogue Mellon describes him as, nor does he give any indication of acting as a con man. Instead, he is presented as a competent man who allows the world to see him in a completely different light, and he is less interesting for it.
Mellon takes his time building his situations, allowing his characters the space to form relationships and achieve their goals. Furthermore, the larger historical context is allowed to unfold, altered by the introduction of O'Sheridane and Fulton's successful experiment. Advancement, however, is never straightforward, with unexpected hurdles being placed in O'Sheridane's way by erstwhile allies and enemies alike. While the action sequences are fast paced, they are contrasted by the periods between, which have a tendency to move slowly.
Further complicating the pacing of the novel is Mellon's use of language. In an attempt to emulate the style of the nineteenth century, Mellon makes use of overly florid language, often to the extent that it gets in the way of his descriptions. Mellon not only goes into intricate, and ornate, detail of the mechanics of invention, but also takes a similar tack when it comes to clothing, decor, etc. He doesn't stop with his description, either. Nearly all of his dialogue is either awkward or excessively formal, sometimes both. Between the dialogue and the description, there are times the reader is tempted to skim over lengthy paragraphs of exposition.
Napoleon Concerto has a lot of interesting ideas and an innovative structure, building through three sections to reach its crescendo. Mellon's style, clearly arrived at consciously, has a tendency to get in the way of his story-telling, even as it adds (a little too much) flavor to the work. Unfortunately, his flourishes detract from the flow of the novel, often seeming excessive.
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