Book Review: “Burke at Waterloo” by Tom Williams

This is one of the best historical novels I’ve ever read. Williams perfects the formula used in Burke in the Land of Silver and Burke and the Bedouinthis time transporting his spy to France and later to Belgium, where he and his loyal friend William Brown take part in one of the most famous battles in European history.

The book opens with Burke and Brown infiltrating a Bonapartist plot to assassinate the Duke of Wellington, and from there sets them on the trail of a dangerous agent of the Corsican. As in previous books, Burke must make full use of his wits, his courage, and his uncanny knack for inhabiting a new identity so completely it nearly overtakes him.

Also as in previous books, Burke gets plenty of time to use his seductive charms, though this time around he finds a woman that he cannot control and, moreover, with whom he begins to fall in love, in a subplot that underscores the difficulty of finding a happy love life for a man in the service of His Majesty.

And then there’s the battle itself, which Williams describes vividly and dramatically. Honestly, it felt more immediate and exciting than watching the movie Waterloo. Williams somehow manages to make it suspenseful. I could almost forget the known historical facts, temporarily, and feel as uncertain of the outcome as any soldier on the field that day. “A damned nice thing,” indeed…

I’ve read books about, watched documentaries on, and seen dramatizations and reenactments of Waterloo. And I’ve always found it a little tough to follow. For a long time, I chalked this up to my own blockheadedness. But, reading this book, and especially the author’s afterword, I learned there is still much about the battle that is not well understood. Certain aspects are confusing and weird. Like Marshal Ney’s unsupported cavalry charge. What was that?

Oh, well. I imagine it was a confused nightmare of artillery fire, charging horses, and multiple loosely-coordinated armies. Under such circumstances, even first-hand observers could hardly be expected to remember clearly what they saw, or what they did. The one thing everyone seems to agree on was that the field in the aftermath of the battle was a horrific hellscape of carnage, noxious with the smell of the dead and the screams of the dying, and this book portrays that, as well as a hint of the soul-searching that the survivors must have gone through.

This is everything you could want out of historical fiction: a gripping story interwoven with enough details of life in the period to give you a little taste of what it would have been like to be there on that fateful day.

[Audio version of this post available below.]


  1. Nice review. Napoleonic Europe is actually a period of history I haven’t studied at all, so I know very little about Waterloo besides the outcome. Is he a time-traveling spy going through history?

    1. He’s not, although in a sense, he might as well be. There was actually a real British spy named James Burke, and the first book in the series is based on some real things he did. The subsequent books are pure invention by the author, but all kept within the Napoleonic era, so he *theoretically* could have done them.

      It’s interesting to study the Napoleonic wars for an American Civil War buff, because it’s clear that it deeply informed the thinking of officers on both sides.

  2. All of the Burke books are good, but this one was the best. He put a lot of effort into this one.

  3. That sounds interesting. I’ve read a few accounts of Waterloo, both fact and fictional, but there is always something new.
    (One school of military historian of the era reckoned that Ney mistook Wellington’s order to tactically withdraw as a sign that Wellington’s army was trying to retreat, and thus this would be a text-book time to send in the cavalry. All the French generals knew Wellington’s army had to be destroyed pretty soon before The Prussians turned up. Napoleon realised Ney had misjudged the situation but seems to have decided that if he reinforced the first charges it might break the opposition. All that smoke and no instant communication made for messy battles).
    It was a slugging match of a battle.

    1. Good summary, and as good an explanation as I’ve ever heard for Ney’s behavior.

      1. The next day the force Napoleon sent to fight Blucher, fought and defeated him, but it didn’t change things,

      2. Thanks.
        Now that the triumphalist stage of British History writing on Waterloo has long passed, there are some very deep and thoughtful accounts of the whole campaign. The reader can be quite spoilt for choice.

        1. Very true. Though, I’ll admit one of my favorite non-fiction books on it is by the unabashedly pro-British author Gordon Corrigan. He makes no attempt to conceal his bias, but his writing style is very entertaining. 🙂

          1. Yes he does have a colourful approach.
            Military history reveals war at the professional is a complex business at all levels and simplistic condemnation of the conduct just does not cut it. Save that for the crews who terrorise civilian populations miles from the front line.
            I think most folk with a professional background feel a need to take issue with the uninformed set in a particular political or social stance who pontificate with no personal experience.
            Corrigan does so indeed.

  4. All these books sound good. But there’s not one copy in any library in Wisconsin… However, I see that they can be read on kindle unlimited so maybe the next time they offer me a free month or two, I’ll take them up on it.

    1. They are good adventure stories, with real history included in a way that’s never dry or dull. If you do read them, I hope you enjoy!

    1. I’m not sure how much you like historical fiction, but if you do, it’s a fun read. 🙂

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