In books, stories of vampires and demons fighting men have been done over and over again and it's tough for a new writer to find a different slant to put on events. The same can be said of war stories, particularly in film and TV versions, where the focus has switched away from the fighting itself and more towards the human aspect, with some having the war as a background character rather than a focus. What M. F. W. Curran has done with "The Secret War" is combine both to great effect.
The recently promoted Captain William Saxon and his closest friend Lieutenant Kieran Harte are survivors of the Battle of Waterloo. For both of them, the victory comes with a cost. William lost many men under his command and carries the guilt that he was no able to do more. Kieran has been injured and is recuperating in the Belgian town of Gembloux where he has found love and is considering leaving the army to stay behind when his colleagues return home.
Neither of them realise that there are worse battles to come, against an enemy not so easily defeated as the French were. They soon find this out, though, as a mysterious artefact stolen from the body of a dead French soldier proves to have the power to raise a daemon. This daemon ravages the town of Gembloux, killing soldiers and civilians alike, including Kieran's lover. Reluctantly, they return home only to find there are others who are interested in the artefact. Death follows them until they meet a man called Engrin who leads them to Rome and introduces them to a secret part of the Catholic Church that is fighting a battle against these daemons and worse.
The story starts a little slowly, given that we don't actually see any action from the Napoleonic War, although we do get some in flashback a little later on. Instead, we get an introduction to the relationship between the Kieran and William. But before things can get bogged down, they have their first meeting with a daemon and suddenly the story becomes all action and remains that way more or less throughout. It does slow a little when they return home, reflecting the far slower pace of life they lead when not on the front line, but even at this point the action I'd become accustomed to by this stage wasn't far away.
The one danger that this approach can bring is that fighting the same kind of enemy over and over can get a little repetitive sometimes, such as happened in Karen Miller's "Empress". Curran, however, has mixed things up wonderfully. Whilst the main story is about the fight between the Church and the daemons and vampyres, there is enough variation within this to keep it interesting all the way through. As well as the background to help you get to know the characters, Curran introduces us to the Church's army of monks and their training and the political intrigue going on within the Vatican which may cause the war to be lost. Add to this the changing scenery between France, Belgium, England and Italy and even a battle at sea and the mixture of places and circumstances really helps to keep things interesting.
However, the aspect I most enjoyed was the characters themselves. Curran's writing isn't especially visually descriptive, meaning you don't often get a clear picture of characters or places themselves, but he is a great writer of personality. Even when all the monks are in their matching uniforms, you can easily tell them apart by the way they act and their motivation for doing what they do. The relationships between all the characters are vividly described and it's almost impossible not to share the guilt that some of them feel for either past or present actions and the love they feel is tangible at times.
This is also a great help in ensuring you know which side you're supposed to be on. As compared to the personalities of the men, the daemons are mindless killing machines and the vampyres, whilst human like in appearance, are cold and emotionless. There is never any sympathy for the forces of evil as Curran doesn't allow the reader to generate any feeling for them whatsoever. It's one of the clearest lines I've seen drawn between two sides of a war in a book in some time and it's quite subtly done, without having to resort to descriptions of the acts of horror the least likeable side may commit to turn your sympathy against them.
When a writer takes on an old idea, there has to be something new involved to make it stand out, or it has to be very well written to make it worth reading. Here, Curran has achieved the latter with a good use of pace and a great use of the character's personalities. This is impressive for any writer, but considering this was his debut novel, this makes it even more worthy of note. It is a testament to both his skill as a writer and how much I enjoyed the story that, having a copy of the second part of the story immediately to hand, I did not hesitate for a moment before diving straight in at the end of this first part. With this book available from as little as 50 pence from eBay, diving in is well worth the outlay.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk