LOVE AND HONOR

By Randall Wallace

Simon & Schuster. 402 pp. $24

Randall Wallace is a screenwriter as well as a novelist; his best-known scripts were for the Vietnam War drama "We Were Soldiers" and for Mel Gibson's award-winning "Braveheart." Both those films displayed not only Wallace's craftsmanship but also his taste for history, adventure and violence, all of which are on abundant display in his novel "Love and Honor."

In its first chapter, it is the early spring of 1774, and the narrator, an American soldier of fortune named Kieran Selkirk, is riding in a sleigh across the frozen wastes of northern Russia. Three others are in the sleigh: its ancient driver, Pyotr; Sergei Gorlov, a Russian mercenary who became Selkirk's best friend while they fought Turks together in the Crimea; and a "fat merchant" named Pantkin. As howls ring out in the night, they come to a sleigh that went before theirs; the snow around it is stained with blood and littered with the skeletal remains of people and horses who were devoured by wolves. Soon enough, their own sleigh is pursued by the howling wolves. The two soldiers fight back with their sabers and muskets ("I leaned again from the side of the sleigh and began to hack"), but their plight seems hopeless. Then Gorlov, a huge, fierce Russian, seizes the fat merchant and literally throws him to the wolves, making possible their escape and providing a happy ending to the chapter for everyone except the merchant.

That, lovers of literature, is what we call a grabber, and many more lie ahead. In the second chapter, we flash back a few months and find Selkirk in London. We learn that he is not simply a soldier of fortune but an American patriot -- fighting in Europe to prepare himself for the coming war of independence against the British. He is summoned to a secret meeting with Benjamin Franklin, who recruits him for a crucial mission. The sneaky Brits are trying to persuade Catherine the Great to send 20,000 battle-hardened Russian soldiers to put down revolutionary stirrings in America. The Virginian's job is to go to Russia, gain the ear of the czarina and persuade her not to send those troops. What Franklin and most readers know, but Selkirk is too pure of heart to grasp, is that Catherine's appetite for handsome young men is such that his mission may not be quite as impossible as it first appears.

Selkirk and Gorlov (soon revealed to be Count Gorlov) reach St. Petersburg. Franklin has given his young friend a letter of introduction to the French ambassador, who of course has a comely daughter ("the door had been opened not by a house servant, but by a woman whose tumbling curls of auburn hair framed eyes of luminous green") who is far more sophisticated than he ("My father is with his mistress," she explains). Soon the two soldiers are at a fancy-dress ball and causing a stir among lusty Russian princesses. They are recruited to protect a sleigh filled with these young lovelies on their way to Moscow. En route, they are set upon by four dreaded Cossacks (part of the thousands who are raping and pillaging across Russia), but our two heroes defeat the enemy (Selkirk, on horseback, slices off one man's head) and thus win the eye of Catherine.

Are you starting to sense that there are a few cliches, familiar from a lifetime of moviegoing, banging about here? You have no idea. Selkirk recruits a loyal lad to his service ("If you give a Russian boy respect, he will give his life for you"). A Russian princess has a foulmouthed "dwarfess" to amuse her. An angry Gorlov throws the impudent dwarfess into a cistern. Selkirk, being a true democrat, falls in love not with a Russian princess but with her servant, who it happens is a fine horsewoman who not once but twice saves his life. Catherine sends Selkirk and Gorlov off to fight the Cossack army. Catherine and her court watch gleefully as a Cossack general is beheaded. Gorlov and Selkirk save each other's lives and exchange boyish banter during battle scenes. Finally we reach the climactic bedroom scene. All the American has to do is give the empress a decent tumble and she will keep her troops at home and guarantee the future independence of his beloved homeland. But our pure-hearted patriot loves the servant girl. History hangs in the balance. What's a boy to do?

You will rarely come across a novel that contains more thrills and spills, more unabashed melodrama, more moments of heroism followed by corny comic relief. Yet if it is true that cliches abound, it is also true that the book is well written, well researched and, if approached with an innocent heart, endless fun. The worst thing about it is Selkirk's high-minded romance with the saintly servant girl. The best thing about it is the battle scenes and the love that develops between the two young soldiers from very different worlds; their courage and heroism are touching. If you accept "Love and Honor" for what it is -- a movie-to-be, a boy's book for grown-ups, an exercise in pure entertainment -- it's a readable, enjoyable romp.