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A war story of English duty and desertion

Redcoat, by Bernard Cornwell. New York: Viking. 404 pp. $18.95. The War for American Independence was hardly a united affair supported, across the board, by Americans of every stripe. It was, for many, a civil war that disrupted their families even as it destroyed their fortunes. Against this backdrop of hatred and hope, Bernard Cornwell, author of eight previous novels on the Napoleonic wars, has set his latest work, ``Redcoat.''

As the name implies, ``Redcoat'' is the story of the English soldiers in America. Cornwell sees the occupation of Philadelphia by the British in the winter of 1777 as an event that forced soldiers of all ranks to choose between duty and desertion.

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Cornwell's research is thorough. His knowledge of the 18th-century army gives ``Redcoat'' rich detail, offering a far more accurate view of the soldier's life than is often found. But he seems determined to prove that the Revolution was every bit as savage and sordid as anything seen in ``Platoon.'' There are moments when Cornwell seems to be writing special effects for a horror movie.

Like an army encumbered with inefficiency, ``Redcoat'' is slow to swing into action. Despite much graphic stage business, Part 1 does little more than set the scene, physically and psychologically. Once past that point, the plot improves dramatically, neatly twisting, turning, and maneuvering to a decisive finish.

But all the characters are two-dimensional. The sadistic sergeant, the beautiful country girl, the ambitious aide-de-camp, the bookish cripple, the country boy with the heart of gold, all come from the stable of stock players. Cornwell tells us what they think, feel, say, and do, but he fails to reveal or delineate them through either their speech or their actions. With the exception of the sergeant, who is incessantly obscene, Cornwell uses the same narrative voice for the English nobility as for the American merchants, for men and women alike.

Thus, for all its obvious strengths, ``Redcoat'' is a disappointment. The prose is clean, but unvarying, lacking punch. Without characters with whom we can sympathize, its excitement becomes cerebral, and what first appeared as mere loose threads finally unravel, leaving gaping holes where there should have been a seamless garment.

M. Melissa Pressley is a free-lance book reviewer.

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