Walls of Jericho by Jonathan Hornblower

(8.7/10)

If you are a fan of Forrester's Hornblower, Cornwall's Sharpe or Fraser's Flashman then you will find Jonathan Hopkins' `Walls of Jericho'" an enjoyable read.

The story is atypical of the genre.

We have two boys: one the son of dead Cavalry hero, heir to estates, an aristocrat in breeding; the other is a village farrier, son of an unknown dead father yet possessed of a stout heart, common sense and stoic outlook. Two boys from opposite ends of the social spectrum who become fast friends when one saves the other from an icy death in a river one cold night. An oft-used pairing in a world where friendship saves the day and helps both author and reader through adventures that are true "Boys Own".

Flintlock and gunpowder flash bang loudly through the novel; the heat and noise of battle war constantly with the modern narrative perception of authors who write of this period. A view whereby the wars Britain fought during the Hanoverian period - in this case the Peninsular War - have every general calmly sipping wine, imposing both public school order and starch jacketed class regimen on armies that resemble merely playing pieces on a pristine board of Europe.

It is a view that Cornwall brilliantly breathed life into with Sharpe and, unfortunately, befuddled a generation of school children with the ITV series. War is not glamorous but there is a legion of novels out there that portray precisely that. The youthful call to glory rings ever strong and despite the sage weariness of his grandfather, it is an impassioned call to the 20th Cavalry of Sir Arthur Wellesley's army in Portugal that means we move from 1805 where Joshua Lock has saved John Killen from death to 1808 and two young men charging a hill at Vimeiro Hill amidst the noise, smoke and confusion of battle. On the way Joshua and Johnny grow to manhood with the usual tribulations that beset two young men who display a maturity beyond their years. Despite a falling out they both find themselves in the army. Killen as a willing commissioned cornet with his mount, The Tempest; Lock as an unwilling private having fallen foul of a drunken King's Shilling. Both have their own paths to follow in their start in the army. Killen has to contend with the bully, Melville Rapton and his sidekick Sergeant Tyloe whilst Lock's natural inability to follow strict orders has him shot in a French ambush and subsequently declared dead.

Whilst Killen believes his friend departed this mortal coil, Lock is nursed back to health by a vengeful Portuguese, Carvilho and the rather more tender ministrations of his granddaughter Isabella. Accepting a responsibility and a charge, Lock finds himself leading a rag tail bunch of defeated Portuguese cavalry against the evil General Louis-Henri Loison with his dragoons and hussars near Evora, to save the day, win the sally, catch the eye of the future Duke of Wellington and generally proceed in Sharpe-esque fashion on a career that proves interesting.

Hopkins prose is tight, his ability to ensure the reader can't quite leave his book alone for too long a key indicator of an ability to snare his audience. The opening chapters on the early boyhood of our two heroes is weak compared to the remaining three quarters of the novel. We move from action to action, cheer silently as they struggle against the bullying cowardly Rapton, admire their strong bond and sense of honour as they do what is both right and show natural aptitude for leadership and courage. It is the desire to know what these two lads will do next that keeps the pages turning coupled with Hopkins mastery of his subject matter that completes the success.

The author not only knows his history of the Peninsula War, but his historical attention to detail is evident. We are treated to precise descriptions of military tactics, how to maintain an army, a horse and all the associated military apparel. Descriptions such as: "Their iron shot could cut bloody swathes through columns of infantry or cavalry, and grapeshot, the smaller rough iron balls packed in a canvass bag that would disintegrate in a cannon barrel and spread like a shotgun blast, could halt an attack in its tracks" are scattered throughout the novel and, as a reader, we feel confident in what we are being told and with confidence grows belief in the narration.

So... a quality effort from Jonathan Hopkins. This only took a few days to read, each waking morning meaning reaching for the novel until, at the last, a 1am finish seemed suitably apt. I'll look for the next because I want to know what happens next to Joshua Lock and Johnny Killen.

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