There’s no escaping it: “Keane’s Company” is heavily indebted to Bernard Cornwell’s “Sharpe” series. Even the name of the central character – Keane – sounds like a pun on Sharpe, and it is unsurprising to find an endorsement from Cornwell on the cover of the paperback.
With further titles in the offing (“Keane’s Company” concludes with the opening section of a sequel, “Keane’s Challenge”, due out in April) it seems clear that both author and publisher are eager to repeat the success of the “Sharpe” books.
Keane’s Challenge: The next book in the series, due out in April 2014.
So the novel is precisely targeted. Lieutenant James Keane is a seasoned soldier fighting in the Peninsular War. Following a serious misdemeanour, he is hand-picked by Wellington to form an irregular troupe for espionage work. This kind of activity was not considered “proper” soldiering, and Keane is advised to recruit his special team of “Cut-throats, murderers, thieves” from the jails of Lisbon.
Keane quickly assembles a rough-and-ready bunch, each of whom brings a particular strength or skill to the company. What follows is a succession of dangerous missions, in which Keane and his ad-hoc team prove themselves up to any task.
The high-point comes when Keane is despatched to find a way for Wellington’s troops to cross the River Douro and attack French-held Oporto. As usual, luck smiles on Keane. With the help of the locals, Keane arranges for barges to carry the British forces across the river and then takes up position in an abandoned seminary. The defence of the seminary – an incident based on historical events – forms the heart of the novel, a gruelling and desperate bid to maintain their foothold against successive French assaults until Wellington’s army arrives in sufficient strength.
Ultimately, the novel is a Boy’s Own adventure. The hero, though not quite infallible, seems invincible. Every impromptu act of derring-do pays dividends. Keane’s team are wounded but never harmed. With the exception of a spy (unidentified) and Keane’s personal nemesis, the British are well-organised and honourable, in contrast to the French, the Spanish and the guerrillas, who tend to be barbaric, incompetent, or both.
The ease with which Keane overcomes any obstacle in his path is not entirely credible, and the author has a tendency to repeat something he’s just said in almost exactly the same words. A host of loose ends remain at the end of the novel – anticipating, of course, the next instalments. But lovers of Sharpe will probably find much to enjoy in Keane’s adventures, and as escapist entertainment the novel delivers an easy read, good on the details of military life and untroubled by moral or political complexities.