What you thought of: Rebellion by James McGee

rebellion1Rebellion is a great read. The period detail enhances the story rather than overwhelming it. The story is believable, it might just have happened like this given Hawkwood’s past and his abilities – and the reputation of both sides for intriguing and plotting. I particularly liked the weaving in of historical events such as the Jacobites in exile in France following the rebellions of 1715 and 1745 and the references to the Auld Alliance giving credence to the plotline – people who loved France but didn’t like the way that things were going under Napoleon and could see beyond the ends of their noses. All in all I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical thrillers that tend towards the alternative history.



When I first read the synopsis of Rebellion by James McGee I was expecting a Napoleonic romp in the vein of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe. What I wasn’t expecting was a cleverly thought out, intricately plotted tale of intrigue and rebellion shaped around a beautifully descriptive Paris suffering from the deprivations of a war that had been fought for too long and on too many fronts. The book gripped me from the first pages; two soldiers plunged into a desperate flight to escape from French troops in the woods in Southern France. And I remained firmly wrapped up in early 19th Century France until the end of the novel.

With clever deftness McGee brings to life historical facts and characters, weaving them into his story for a gripping, fast paced romp filled with British stratagem and French disillusionment. His main character, Matthew Hawkwood, is a believable hero you can feel a real empathy with even if, like me, this is your first meeting with him. The historical characters themselves are well filled out, breathing life into names that until now would have just adorned dusty historical tomes and leaving the reader with an understanding of a people whom would have only been seen as the enemy; indeed, Hawkwood feels akin to French counterparts and can see the misery that countless years of war has bought upon Paris, and the people who were only fighting for change. McGee’s clever placing of these historical characters within a little know factual tale of a French led rebellion within Paris that nearly overthrew the rule of Napoleon without a single shot being fired, is cleverly thought out and adapted. With a historical time limit in place, the novel moves along quickly without the frenetic pace of a Dan Brown story, yet with energy that leaves the reader wanting to reach the next page, the next chapter. Indeed, many a chapter is ended with a page turning cliff hanger.

What makes this a unique novel is the time and style and pace, the well thought out intricacies of political intrigue in a time where it took days to travel instead of hours, and where wars were fought and won through strategy and skill and not just brute strength. It is the plan to “Seize an Empire”, through gossip and paperwork which fired my imagination, especially when based on historical fact. McGee writes with a fresh approach to an era that has been covered by previous authors; rather than the battles and bloodshed that so often are the major feature of a novel – although Rebellion has enough fighting to keep most happy – there are the machinations of a government who would stop at nothing to end a an exhausting war, including the sacrifice of its own players if it must.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would greatly recommend it to anyone who has read Bernard Cornwell, C.J. Sansom or even Wilbur Smith. And I look forward to reading more of James McGee’s work in the future.


Matthew Hawkwood is James McGee’s rugged hero of three previous historical novels; Ratcatcher, Resurrectionist and Rapscallion. In the mould of other fictional heroes whose exploits are set in past times, such as those of Cornwell, O’Brian, and Perez-Reverte, and whose character is evolving with each new book, Hawkwood has been described as a Regency James Bond, tall, dark haired “tied off at the nape of the neck” with scarred features and blue-grey eyes; a man you “wouldn’t want to cross”.

Ex-soldier, Bow Street Runner and now, in this novel, seconded to a shadowy department of the Home Office which receives its funds from the Secret Service, Hawkwood is recruited to help fulfil a plan with a Paris based British agent which, if successful, could lead to a negotiated peace treaty between France (still at war with Britain in 1812) and the countries allied against her. All good stuff, promising daring exploits, deception, political intrigue and the all-important historical accuracy to make it plausible.

We warm to Hawkwood and the other characters with whom he has to deal and enjoy their mutual distaste for their numerous French enemies and things Napoleonic, and Hawkwood, who speaks with the occasional profanity one might expect, such as “You bastard, you rotten shit-eating Frog bastard”, keeps the flag flying. How truly authentic this sort of language is though, I don’t know, but at least you feel that Hawkwood really means it.

Rebellion offers well-researched and detailed plots of conspiracy, revolution and war with a realistic dose of wartime cruelty and brutality, English wit and cunning. With his “ambivalent attitude towards authority” the recalcitrant Hawkwood, singled out as the right man for the job, does not disappoint. Hawkwood is a tough, likeable hero to whom we can relate. After all, we have come to know James Bond quite well.

What I found interesting is McGee’s choice of name for his man, for in the 14th century there was, in fact, an Englishman, Sir John Hawkwood, known to the French as Jean Haccoute , who was a successful mercenary and later Italian condottiere (contractor/Mercenary Captain) who served in the English army in France under Edward III and may have been knighted by the King or the Black Prince.

Could Matthew Hawkwood be a distant “descendant”?


The year is 1812, Napoleon is in Russia, along with almost every able bodied man in France, and England and France are tired of war. The time is ripe for revolution (again). Bow Street Runner and former soldier Matthew Hawkwood is seconded to the Alien Office and it has a mission for him, so secret that they won’t even tell him what it is. Travelling blind, Hawksmoor sets sell for France on the Griffin, on seas so tempestuous that a crew member cries out ‘By Christ, I hope you’re worth the bloody trouble!’.
James McGee’s Rebellion may be the fourth in a series of Hawkwood adventures but it is a standalone novel, as I can attest, not having yet read the preceding three. While reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe , this similarity may be surface deep because in Rebellion the action is very much more to do with politics and subterfuge than with flashing blades and battlefields.
Arriving in Paris, Hawkwood is set the mission of working himself into the confidence of ambitious – and imprisoned – French General Malet. Malet’s plan is to overthrow the Napoleonic regime by announcing to all and sundry that the dictator is dead, fallen in Moscow. The new government will seize the moment, swapping the prisoners of the Temple tower dungeon for the feared persecutors of Napoleon’s government. From the moment that Hawkwood gives their plans a much needed kick forward, the tension doesn’t let up, not for an instant.
Intrigue rather than action dominates Rebellion. No name can be relied upon and no friendships can be trusted. Along the way we meet sincere and brave proponents for the many sides, not least of whom is the self-sacrificing wife of Malet, who just needs an embrace from Hawkwood to carry on. Another character that springs to mind is Stuart, the commander of the Griffin. This man left his ship in dire straits and in great personal peril to rescue a spy with no name – a Mr Smith – and fulfil his mission. The courage of Stuart and his crew stays with Hawkwood throughout the novel. It’s not to be underrated.
The storm through which the Griffin founders bit by bit will have the reader holding onto the arms of their chair for calm and, although the majority of the novel is tense with danger rather than action, it is no less riveting for that. This is partly because above it all looms the iconic image of revolution, the guillotine. And its menace never lets up throughout the novel.
While the story is compelling and the writing is excellent, this is not a gentle world. The fate of brave souls matter little. There is always another adventure ahead for Hawkwood, there is little time to think on the fate of those he leaves behind. But read Rebellion and there is a high chance you will be hooked. I haven’t read the preceding three adventures and that didn’t matter a jot. I may well do now though.



Rebellion is an historical fiction novel by James McGee and follows the adventures of Matthew Hawkwood as he heads behind the enemy lines in Napoleonic France.

October 1812 sees Britain and France still at war, France is engaged with both Spain and Russia and fighting a battle on two fronts is proving very weary for the countries citizen’s – rebellion is brewing but there have already been several failed attempts to overthrow Napoleon Bonaparte since he appointed himself as First Consul.

Meanwhile back in Blighty Matthew Hawkwood finds himself seconded to the foreign arm of the Secret Service and sent to Paris on a special mission, a daring plan that could lead to a peace treaty between France and the allies if it succeeds. Failure though would mean prison, torture and a meeting with the guillotine…

I don’t get chance to read much fiction outside the realms of sci-fi and fantasy so when the opportunity arose to review a historical fiction novel I jumped at the chance. I haven’t read any previous James McGee books but they have caught my eye a number of times in bookshops (Ratcatcher and Rapscallion spring to mind) and so I review this novel with a fresh perspective.

I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, I have read a number of novels set in the same era – most notably Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe series (which I also fondly remember watching on TV in my younger days) and Rebellion is up there with the very best of them – Hawkwood feels somehow a more complete and realistic character than Richard Sharpe ever did and this realism is prevalent throughout the novel (Sharpe always felt a little too predictable and each story had almost the exact same structure).

Comparisons with Cornwall’s series appear inevitable due to the same strong male lead and attention to historical accuracy – the story here focuses on the “Malet conspiracy” of 1812 and to me it seems very accurate and true to the real events of the time which is fairly well documented and occurs during Bonaparte’s disastrous Russian Campaign which see’s his own people starving in the streets to fuel his warmongering. If you desire to learn more I urge you to look up the facts AFTER you have read the novel otherwise it could spoil the plot.

Hawkwood is a complex and fantastically researched character, enigmatic and completely engaging – one of the highlights of the novel. I also love the descriptive fight and battle scenes which manage to be both evocative and exciting without going over the top in the gore stakes.

The story is immersive and the plot swift enough for me to read through the whole book in just a few sittings (all 500 plus pages) although the first third of the novel does suffer a little with the setting of the story and back history of the major characters, this is alleviated somewhat with plenty of intrigue and quite colourful characters.

Overall Rebellion is an exemplary example in the historical fiction genre, well researched with an absorbing story and a complicated and compelling protagonist, recommended.


In the historical notes to Ratcatcher, James McGee’s first book in the Matthew Hawkwood series, the author writes: ‘…it would not be beyond the bounds of credibility that an officer of Hawkwood’s capabilities would be called upon to perform intelligence duties abroad.’ With Rebellion, the fourth book, McGee makes good on this statement and despatches his hero to France.
The story begins brightly, with some fast-paced action: a treacherous sea voyage, skirmishes behind enemy lines. Fans of Hawkwood (and Sharpe) will enjoy it. New readers will get to grips with Hawkwood – a strong figure with a nice line in humour – quickly. The history is introduced gently and unobtrusively.
Once in Paris, Hawkwood operates as an agent provocateur in a plot to bring down Napoleon and thus end the long wars against revolutionary and republican France. The year is 1812. But – plot spoiler alert – what about Elba, the Hundred Days and Waterloo?
And this is the main problem with Rebellion. The outcome of the coup is part of the historical record, thus removing a key dramatic device. We know Hawkwood will fail. What is more, Napoleon is away fighting the Russians, so in his place McGee gives us a raft of second-string baddies and criminals for Hawkwood to triumph over.
After the dash and verve of part one, however, things slow down. This is a problem for a book described as a thriller. There is page after page of ‘history through dialogue’ in the pedestrian middle section. McGee’s attention to detail is impressive. He captures the sights, sounds and smells of Paris brilliantly. But do we need fifty pages of historical research (and I say this as someone with a PhD in the period) and a walking tour of Paris? Some readers may well enjoy and expect this. For me, it was overdone.
There are some minor irritants: shifting POVs within scenes; too much ‘… Hawkwood thought’ following words in italics; overuse of !!!; the ‘jolt’ between chapters 1 and 2 that only makes sense three-quarters of the way through the book. The appearance of a Chinese martial artist, if not wholly out of place, feels incongruous. (And surely the use of the phrase ‘roundhouse’ to describe a kick is an anachronism?) These are frustrating because McGee can write.
Things pick up again in the final third. There is action, and not a little pathos and humility. The various stories are tied up satisfactorily and professionally.
McGee’s desire to give each novel in the Hawkwood series a different feel should be applauded. And don’t get me wrong, this is an enjoyable piece of story-telling for historical fiction fans. It’s a shame that the flabby middle slowed down what could have been a lean, athletic Napoleonic adventure.



That there was an almost successful 1812 rebellion against Napoleon in Paris, instigated by one of his former generals Claude-Francois Malet, was new to me.
It is great that McGee has researched and told this tale. He has unearthed a fascinating cast of real people who were actually in Paris at that time: Colquhoun Grant an intelligence officer in Wellington’s peninsular army, escaped from capture to spy in the enemy’s capital, James McPherson a Jacobite (!) spy, Eugene-Francois Vidocq, a reformed criminal who as a policeman helped set up the Sûreté and did much to invent modern policing and finally General Malet himself. A major problem with the book is the author fails to make these characters come to life.
A far larger problem is the central fictional character Hawkwood – a former peninsular army officer now a Bow Street Runner. Other than that he is tall and has scars on his face, I couldn’t recall anything of his character at the end of the book. Of course he can kill silently with his hands, shoot straight with deadly accuracy and speak perfect French, as one does. But Hawkwood can’t leap off the page. He is the Jack Reacher of the Napoleonic age, more an indestructible plot device than a personality.
This is the fourth book of the series. Maybe the author has fleshed out his protagonist in the first book and then assumed new readers of are up to speed.
What does it take for a Napoleonic era hero? Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Etienne Gerard has his blithe, disastrous self-confidence and Horatio Hornblower has insecurities and genius for improvisation. The sociopath Richard Sharpe has his (not unreasonable) resentment against incompetent aristocratic superiors; Jack Aubrey has his double act with Stephen Maturin.
This book has the makings a great film or TV series, as it is a story full of suspense set at a juncture of history that is fairly obscure. Character actors would be able to inhabit the sketchily drawn portraits and flesh them out as personalities.


I’m afraid that I can’t say that I enjoyed Rebellion all that much, although I did manage to finish it, mainly because it did become slightly more interesting as the story wore on. It starts with a short burst of action, followed by a long, long – some 300 pages – passage where nothing much seems to happen, apart from an awful lot of chat. Things perk up when the “Malet rebellion” gets under way which, of course, we knew from the start was not successful. I found the finish a bit of a letdown, too, with a rather scrambled and unlikely escape by our hero. Maybe I would have enjoyed the book more, if I had read any of the previous Hawkwood stories, but I somehow doubt it.


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