With the American Civil War raging, two men are set on a collision course by the conflicting ideologies of the Confederacy and the Union–and by supernatural forces which neither of them understand, or even believe in. Captain Richard Addison is a loyal union soldier whose reputation has been forever tarnished by the harsh necessities of war, but he has suffered just as much as anyone he has been forced to hurt. The death in combat of his youngest son has wounded him more deeply than any bullet and left his frail wife teetering on the verge of breakdown, driving her to embrace spiritualism and mediums in the hope of contacting their boy once more. By contrast Addison buries himself into his duty, pitted in a constant struggle of attrition with roving gangs of Bushwhackers–the Confederacy’s volunteer “army”, who employ guerrilla tactics to harry the union wherever they march—only to come face to face with the spitting image of his dead son: Jimmy Rawlins, a young man dedicated to the independence of the South.
Jimmy has thrown in his lot with the most brutal bushwhacker of the war, William “Bloody Bill” Anderson, but there is more to Bloody Bill’s campaign against the North than meets the eye. He is an agent of a mystical cabal seeking victory in an unseen war, one between the forces of Chaos and Order, and Jimmy is unwittingly dragged into this conflict as well. Neither he nor Captain Addison are aware of what is at stake, but when a strange African-American wanderer named Rufus recruits Addison to the side of Order the two men find themselves drawn towards a confrontation that will determine more than just victory in America. The fate of the world hangs in the balance.
This is the third book by Sean McLachlan that I have reviewed (he blogs here, and has another dedicated to Civil War Horror) but I think it’s the first one I read. He and I met when he welcomed me to one of the various writers’ groups I’ve joined since moving to Spain, and soon after I had the chance to read one of his short stories (which eventually became the title piece in The Night the Nazis Came to Dinner and other dark tales). A Fine Likeness was one of the first titles I bought when I finally got an ebook reader (“real” books in English tend to cost quite a bit here) because, you know, solidarity, brother…
Before trying his professional hand at fiction, Sean already earned a living writing–amongst other things–historical texts about the American Civil War, and this background set him in good stead. His familiarity with the period, military tactics and the attitudes of participants on both sides of the cultural divide come through clearly and provide an authentic flavour to the story. There is more to proceedings than simply regular gunfights (and, admittedly in a departure from the facts, the occasional rearing up of oppressive supernatural forces bent on destruction). The story also hints at the personal cost of participating in war via (obviously heightened) comparison with that of engagement in a supernatural struggle in which one’s humanity is literally, rather than figuratively, at risk.
If I have a criticism of this melding of historical and fictional conflicts, it is only that the unseen workings of evil and good are superficially aligned very much with the Confederacy and the Union respectively–though not in such a way as to suggest that any questionable motivations of the South were actually demoniacally inspired, and nor is it suggested that all Southerners were driven solely by the issue of slavery. However, there were also beats in which I felt the storytelling craft fell a bit short in the basic text. I sometimes found too little insight into characters or their motivation to carry a particular scene, or dialogue presented with simply too little narrative description so the lines seemed flat, floating in a vacuum, starved of any grounding that I could really visualise.
These foibles aside, though, A Fine Likeness was a decent read overall. In relation to the other things I’ve seen of Sean’s, I’d say it exists on a spectrum of steady improvement, with The Night… below and his new post-apocalyptic tale Radio Hope above. His second House Divided novel should be out in 2014, and I’m looking forward to it representing another step forward in his fiction career.