Americans have always thirsted for tales of the British Empire. From the first appearances of Kipling and Conrad to more recent successes by Paul Scott and J.G. Farrell, the current of romances of British imperial intrigue has remained strong.
While novels of British imperial decline are more popular at the moment, the English still produce a smaller, but steady, flow of adventures describing their imperial successes. Consider the case of Douglas Reeman.
Reeman is a veteran historical novelist, with nearly 30 books published, who specializes in novels about the Royal Navy. Over his 30-year career, he has adapted his interests to satisfy the tastes of a changing market. For those who like to relive World War II, Reeman has produced more than 20 novels with such forthright titles as "Go In and Sink!" and "With Blood and Iron." For those who prefer relaxing in the age of Napoleon, Reeman has followed in C.S. Forester's wake with 10 nautical novels written under the pseudonym Alexander Kent. And for those who like to bask in the glories of Queen Victoria's reign, Reeman has begun a third series, of which "The First to Land" is the second volume.
The novel begins in the parlor of Maj. Gen. Harry Blackwood's Hampshire estate in the waning months of 1899. Blackwood, a veteran of the Crimean War of 1854, worries about whether he will be the last in his line to have a distinguished military career. "The General had many fixed ideas," Reeman writes. And "with the British Empire spreading to encompass the whole world you needed strong and decisive leadership, an example for those who had to defend it."
His son, David, is certainly an avatar of the military virtues. As the novel opens, Capt. David Blackwood has, at age 27, already won the Victoria Cross, the empire's highest honor, for his gallant actions at the battle of Benin on the west coast of Africa. Put under his command is his cousin Ralf, a ne'er-do-well who has already fallen under Gen. Blackwood's stern eye for his extensive gambling debts. Together, the Blackwoods steam toward a new assignment -- China, where Chinese nationalists who are worried that their country is to be divided among the great powers have united to expel the foreign devils. Blackwood's mission -- to aid European and American forces trying to break the siege of Peking, where the European legations have been surrounded by hordes of the so-called Boxers.
"The First to Land" divides itself into two parts. In the first half, Blackwood leads his forces on the HMS Mediator, steaming up the Yangtze River past a human blockade of Boxer forces. (At one point, the Mediator must cross a "dam" made up entirely of Boxer troops.) In the second half, Blackwood's Royal Marines switch to an armored train on a perilous journey across the Chinese plains. En route, Blackwood falls in love with the Countess Friedrike von Heiser, whose husband is trapped in the German legation in Peking.
"The First to Land" suffers from one major and one minor flaw. The novel is told entirely from the viewpoint of Blackwood's Royal Marines. The Boxers exist in Reeman's world as massed ciphers, nameless men who live to throw themselves against the relentless fury of a Nordenfeldt machine gun, or to drown themselves beneath the unstoppable might of the Mediator.
Now it is true that the Boxers were somewhat fanatical. Like the Sioux at Wounded Knee 10 years earlier, they believed that they were protected by supernatural forces that made them invincible to the white man's bullets. Yet while Reeman is to be commended for avoiding predictable stereotypes, he also deprives his Chinese of their humanity.
Reeman's treatment of women is similarly perfunctory. The heroine, Countess von Heiser, is thrown in almost as an afterthought, necessary to satisfy the requirements of a formula. Some of the cliche's, for example, are almost unbearable; while it is perhaps necessary that the one night of passion allowed between the two lovers will produce a son, is it really necessary to drive the point home by assuring the reader of Count von Heiser's impotence?
Still, there is much in "The First to Land" to recommend. Reeman does a good job in capturing the milieux of the period, from the necessity to appear in dress uniforms whenever possible to the camaraderie between soldiers in an age when goals did not have to be defined by memoranda and position papers. The Victorians, after all, may have been wrong in subduing "lesser breeds beyond the law," but at least they filled their lives with a purpose and zest largely lacking in our age. Reeman does well to remind us of this.
Besides, what modern soldiers would relax after a battle by boiling their dress whites in "a few gallons of tea?"