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    Napoleon the Great

    In his book ‘Napoleon the Great’ Andrew Roberts provides a well-written and engaging account of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Drawing from thousands of recently published letters written by Napoleon himself, Roberts is able to paint a realistic picture of the man and give good insights into his motivations. Roberts is an excellent writer, he makes good choices regarding which details of Napoleon’s life to focus on, and the narrative structure of this biography is a surprisingly fun and quick read, especially considering the book’s 800 page length. I think this book is a fitting introduction to Napoleon, Roberts focuses on key events and their impacts, but does not linger too long on any one topic. While the descriptions of Napoleon’s campaigns are well described and have decent maps to support them, it is unfortunate that any battles not involving Napoleon are often summarized in only one or two sentences, or even not mentioned at all. Of course, this may have been a necessary sacrifice to keep what is already a very long book to a reasonable length. What I found most enjoyable in Roberts’ writing was his willingness to tell both sides of the story. While it is quite clear that Roberts is a great fan of Napoleon, he is not afraid to point out when the man was outright lying about his performance on the battlefield, rigging election results, or making gross errors in politics or battle. While it may be argued that Roberts gives Napoleon a pass on a certain issues (such as the massacre of prisoners-of-war at Jaffa), Roberts does attempt to put these obscene acts in context without outright endorsing them. Furthermore, Roberts does give credit where it is due (unlike Napoleon himself), correctly stating the significant contributions of Napoleon’s ministers and marshals. The only real failure of this book, in my opinion, is that it presents everything from Napoleon’s perspective and gives little insight into the motivations of his opponents. This is acceptable given that this is a narrative biography, but things can come off a little one-sided at times. In conclusion, this is an excellent introduction to the life of Napoleon and makes a very strong argument that one man can single-handedly shape history. Be aware that the book is very much centered around Napoleon himself (hence the title), and does not go into great detail regarding the politics and events in other areas of the world. Even the Peninsular War is largely glossed over after Napoleon’s departure from Spain in early 1809. Again, I understand the necessity of limiting the size of an already large book, but I did find it unfortunate that these areas are hardly mentioned. So, perhaps not a definitive chronicle of the Napoleonic Era, but certainly an excellent introduction to the man for whom the era is named.
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