The Napoleons of Eridanus
Reviewed date: 2019 Jun 7
Translated from the French by Stanley Hochman
This is not a good book. It's clumsy, wooden, and just plain uninspired. It's an interesting idea, but Barbet has not really seemed to think it through and is, instead, cribbing bits from Napoleon's military history and adding some fanciful science fiction set dressing. Maybe this plays better for a French audience, but it did nothing for me, an American.
It is the winter of 1812. Napoleon's army is fleeing Russia in disarray. Captain Bernard and the seven men under his command are lost and in imminent danger of freezing to death. They head toward a Russian village in hopes of finding shelter.
Before reaching the village they are met by Russian peasant women who tell them about a strange metal pot that fell from the sky. Bernard thinks it may be a kind of military balloon, so he investigates. It's like nothing he's ever seen--enormous, rigid, and made of metal. However, the inside of the gargantuan metal machine is warm and seemingly deserted, so he sets up camp for the night inside the machine. The peasant women, enamored of the handsome and charming French soldiers, join them.
It's a spaceship.
The whole troop--French soldiers, Russian peasant women, and the horses--are whisked away from Earth and taken to a planet circling a star in the Eridanus cluster.
The aliens explain: they are Fortruns, and their race is peaceful. They have spent eons living for nothing but pure pleasure. Now their planets are being conquered by an aggressive and militaristic empire known as the Kveyars. The Fortruns have highly advanced technology and weapons, but have no idea how to properly use them. So they need the warlike Earthmen to command their military forces and repel the Kveyar invaders.
Captain Bernard does some quick thinking. He accepts the challenge but lays out his terms: first, he will be given the rank of General and will be given supreme command of the entire Fortrun military. Second, his men will be paid one ingot of gold for each month of service; he will be paid two ingots per month.
The Fortruns accept the terms. Bernard takes stock of the Fortrun situation and decides to start with a single, limited strike: to retake a minor planet.
And here the story settles into a repetitive narrative structure. There are three battles, each of which is modeled after one of Napoleon's famous engagements. And after each battle, Captain Bernard is victorious and obtains a new, crucial piece of technology. Also after each battle, the Fortruns put him off balance by changing the parameters of his employment.
In the end, Bernard outsmarts the Fortruns and sets himself up as Emperor of the entire galaxy.