The premise of Invasion! The Forgotten Adventures of Dolley Madison, Book One is clever enough. Dolley Madison, wife of America’s fourth President, James Madison, had another life during the War of 1812: a turbaned crusader, along with her trusty sidekick and servant girl Sukey, harrying and perplexing the invading British Army at every turn, rallying and leading American troops, turning the tide of battle after battle. Unbeknownst to historians everywhere, or forgotten by them, she was America’s secret weapon.
A clever premise, yes. In execution, not quite so much.
In his end notes, author Neil Garra reports that at one time he built war games for a certain government agency located in Maryland (likely the National Security Agency), and that around that same time he’d become fascinated with Dolley Madison and the history of the War of 1812. The Forgotten Adventures was the result. This is both good news and bad news.
The bad news is that Invasion! reads much like a video game, and has many of such games’ weaknesses. There is little in the way of character development. Dolley and Sukey spend 60 of the first 90 pages learning how to become Rangers after they fought off an attack by robbers while traveling to Fort Lafayette, near Pittsburgh. But that’s about it. From that point forward, Dolley and Sukey become the female Batman and Robin of the early 19th Century. They win every battle they enter. If they’re ever in any real danger, they emerge from the battle unscathed. If they’re captured, they’ll escape. After the first encounter or two, the reader has no reason to worry: he or she knows they’ll survive. The only question becomes where they’ll go and who they’ll defeat next.
Garra tries to add some depth to Dolley by giving her and her husband a sex life, but every episode (each no more than PG rated) feels tacked on, as if someone had told Garra that adding sex scenes would make Dolley more of a real person. They don’t. They contribute nothing important to the larger story.
The same is true for the religious elements. Like Dolley, Garra was raised a Quaker but later left the denomination. Through roughly the first half of the book, Dolley takes part in religious activities—attending a church service at Fort Lafayette, teaching or quoting long passages from the Bible, praying for forgiveness before or after killing an enemy (or many of them)—and then they largely fade from the story. As with the sex scenes, these events feel tacked on, and for a reader who doesn’t share those beliefs, they can also feel like the author is rubbing the reader’s face in them.
The book is not a complete loss, however. Garra clearly did a lot of research on the early part of the War (Invasion! ends with the attack on Fort McHenry in September of 1814), both armies, their weapons, and their leaders, the politics of the fledgling United States, and the topography and geography of the area around Washington City and Baltimore. He even uses the fact that Dolley was sometimes called the “Presidentress” rather than the “First Lady.” Garra uses these details so well that the reader can feel as if they’re in the location, watching events unfold.
Garra’s character’s dialogue is also comfortable and realistic, although this reader got tired of every character exclaiming “Huzzah!” Surely the people of the time used other exclamations too. Certain other expressions, like “gotta” and “gonna,” seemed out of place for the time as well.
In sum, Invasion! seems to be more a history of the early part of the War of 1812, with an action/adventure story featuring an unlikely pair of heroines laid over the top, than an action/adventure story featuring an unlikely pair of heroines set in the War of 1812. The difference is significant, and it left this reader disappointed.