Living and Dying Along the Rio Grande

A Sinister Splendor: A Mexican War Novel true west magazine
A Sinister Splendor: A Mexican War Novel by Mike Blakely (Forge, $29.99).

The 20th novel, A Sinister Splendor: A Mexican War Novel (Forge, $29.99), by three-time Western Writers of America Spur Award-winner Mike Blakely is an instant classic and the best novelization of the oft-overlooked conflict since Jeff Shaara’s Gone for Soldiers (Ballantine, 2000). Well-organized, tightly written and smartly paced, the book keeps the reader on the front lines of the war’s development and subsequent battles between August 1845 and February 1847. The novelist-singer-songwriter has a very well-developed and entertaining style of prose that through excellent research brings voice to a handful of historic characters, including President James K. Polk, Lt. U.S. “Sam” Grant, Sarah “The Great Western” Bowman, Gen. Zachary Taylor, Col. Jefferson Davis, Texas Rangers Samuel Walker and Jack Hays, and Mexican leader Antonio de Lopez Santa Ana. Blakey’s strategic decision to give voice to both Mexican and American leaders, from privates to presidents, is one of the strengths of the novels, and will remind readers of the symbiotic, shared cultural and religious relationship and rivalry between the two oldest North American nations that has remained to the present. The author, a native Texan, explains in his introduction, “It was an era not so unlike our own—a period of controversy and partisan politics, of great promise and frightening uncertainty, of dangerous ambitions and delusions of glory. The results of the Mexican War still shape and haunt us to this very day.”

Blakely, who has been successfully writing Western novels and Western music for more than three decades, demonstrates his storytelling ability, journalistic skills of observation and his historical research abilities throughout the novel, but they are all especially noticeable in his rich, personal understanding of the people, culture and landscape of South Texas, the Rio Grande River Valley and the Mexican states of Nuevo León and Tamaulipas. Readers who have not spent time in South Texas or traveled to northeastern Mexico, will definitely feel as if they have traveled to the border region’s La Frontera and walked the historic streets of Nuevo León’s capital city, Monterrey. We see the area through the eyes of his characters, including American Army defector and Saint Patrick’s Brigade officer, John Riley, as in this passage: “Finally Riley crossed a high pass to see the gleaming city of Monterrey below, a silver strand of clear mountain water—the Santa Catarina River—running past the southern limits of the capital city.”

Fans of Blakely’s A Sinister Splendor will be eagerly awaiting his follow-up volume to this fast-paced, well-researched novel of the Northern Theater of the Mexican War. In the interim, I’d recommend reading Peter Guardino’s award-winning Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War (2017), Robert W. Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent (2009) and Michael Hogan’s The Irish Soldiers of Mexico as primers to Blakely’s outstanding historical fiction. And if you are like me, you will be left both haunted by the horrific battle scenes, and empathetic for the thousands of Americans and Mexicans who lost their lives in long-forgotten battles between American neighbors.

Stuart Rosebrook

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