Oxford University Professor and European history scholar Michael Broers offers an engaging portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte in his new Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny (Pegasus, $35). The book is the first of a two-volume study of the French leader, and is solidly grounded in Napoleon’s correspondence and papers (currently being published by the Fondacion Napoleon). This first installment covers Napoleon’s life from his birth in Corsica in 1769 to the autumn of 1805, as he and his Grande Armée prepared to face the allied Habsburgs, Russians, and British in battle. The author revises the stereotype of Napoleon as a megalomaniac psychopath bent on world domination to offer a more nuanced portrait of the man behind the myth, though he may at times swing too far to the positive in his defense of Napoleon's choices. Nevertheless, both Broers' profile of his subject and his analysis of European history are peppered with searing witticisms and observations that make for an enjoyable and informative read. Broers reveals Napoleon as a complex man whose so-called "destiny" for greatness was less the result of fate than of hard work and relentless ambition.
Kate Williams's third book, Ambition and Desire, is an engaging biography of Josephine de Beauharnais. Josephine rose from obscure origins to become the wife of the Emperor Napoleon, surviving the Revolution and the Terror along the way. Williams's taste for flawed, complex subjects is evident in this volume, which portrays Josephine as a woman who was profoundly human and relatable despite her fame and notoriety. As Napoleon's wife Josephine was the perfect Empress, a talented hostess and shrewd diplomat whose charm offset her husband's rudeness, and she was loved by the people of France despite her reputation for sexual licentiousness and apparent shopping addiction. Of equal interest to Josephine's story is her unique perspective on Napoleon. Through her eyes, the reader sees not just an ambitious conqueror, but also a suitor, lover, and husband.