This atmospheric debut novel draws readers into the Mexican port city of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Texas’s southern tip. It’s 1863 and Matamoros has gained sudden strategic importance for the Confederates, since the Union has blockaded all the Southern ports. Clayton Wilkes, a gambling den owner, con artist, smuggler, and scoundrel, is a plantation owner’s son and apparent Confederate sympathizer, though actually he’s a Union spy. His long-ago love is fellow swindler Allie Stoneman, a Confederate widow who comes to Matamoros to sell her cotton crop. Old feelings resurface between Allie and Clay, but she realizes he’s helping the Yankees and stealthily counters his efforts. A substantial cast engages in double-crosses and side scams against the backdrop of the battle for Texas.
Kahn’s descriptions create urgency and ambiance. Clay’s bar smelled like “tobacco smoke, chorizos grilled in the kitchen by Milagra, his ancient Mexican cook; the sweet perfumed women at the bar, warm beer, burning kerosene and oiled boot-leather.” This poetry only falters during Clay and Allie’s love scenes, which are weighed down by clunkers such as “their mouths met like hungry animals.” The romantic subplot feels hollow in a book full of tragedy, but all the con artistry and the tensions of wartime more than make up for it.
History aficionados will appreciate how well Kahn weaves facts into fiction. Thespian John Wilkes Booth, Clay’s relative “by marriage—or at least by adultery,” is well integrated into the plot, as are various pivotal events. Kahn never romanticizes the war, painting sympathetic portraits of deserters while taking jabs at profiteers. Readers looking for a strong sense of time and place, most particularly Texas history lovers, will find this hits the spot.
Takeaway: Texas history aficionados will love this dramatic tale of love, double-crosses, and sorrow toward the end of the Civil War.
Great for fans of Tina Juarez’s South Wind Come, Edwin Shrake’s Blessed McGill.
Production grades Cover: B- Design and typography: A Illustrations: B Editing: A Marketing copy: C+
A historical novel offers an in-depth view of the machinations surrounding the Civil War battle for Texas.
The year is 1863, and Matamoras, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, has become the Confederacy's backdoor port for trading cotton for munitions. The once-sleepy village is now a booming town of 40,000 with "a hive of Northern and Southern spies" and profiteers of all stripes. A very large cast of colorful characters and complicated plotlines are woven together through interrelationships with the novel's primary protagonists, Clayton Wilkes, owner of Brave River Gambling Emporium, and Allie Stoneman. Clayton, whose father was a cruel plantation owner, despises slavery. Secretly working with Yankee Ambassador Leonard Pierce, he is a spy for the North who feeds Confederate Consul Jose Quintero misleading information about Union plans to invade Texas. Allie is Clayton's former con-artist partner and lover. A Confederate sympathizer, she has come to Matamoras to establish a business. But she requires capital. When Clayton learns of her scam to raise money, he sets her up to give Quintero false information as to where the Union force will attack. Of course, one con deserves another. When Allie learns she's been had, she schemes to nullify Clayton's plan. In this deadly game, thousands of young men are going to die. The only question is whether they will be Rebels or Yankees. Kahn's (Timefall, 2014, etc.) descriptive prose delivers powerful images, as when Brownsville prepares to evacuate before the oncoming Union Army: "Clayton walked the streets under sensory assault: trees afire, people barking, animals screaming, orange shadows on adobe; glass breaking, fists beating flesh, sour smoke." And when Allie tells Clayton: " ‘This is my new life…I don't want you in it'…a hollow opened in the pit of his stomach." The slow plot development eventually leads to lively, often gripping action. Clayton's thoughts, scattered throughout the story, clarify the man he has become. Skirmishes between the two armies and the maneuverings of the characters involved successfully build tension to an ending that delivers more than one surprise.
Strong leads star in a passionate war tale filled with political intrigue, violence, and scoundrels.