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James Kahn
James Kahn, author

Adult; General Fiction (including literary and historical); (Market)

Matamoros is a rousing Civil War adventure romance set on the Rio Grande in 1863. By 1862 the Union had blockaded all Confederate ports. Just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, Matamoros – a foreign port – was the only harbor where the South could ship its cotton to Europe, and smuggle in arms for the rebellion. So it became a haven for Yankee and Rebel spies, gunrunners and cotton smugglers, runaway slaves, Mexican guerreros, Texas Rangers and rogues of every stripe. But Matamoros was also full of French Foreign Legionnaires and Austrian footsoldiers – because that same year, Napoleon III had invaded Mexico, to install Archduke Maximilian of Austria as Emperor. Set against the backdrop of two wars, this is the story of Clay – an expatriate Southern gentleman running a gambling hall – and Allie, his ex-con artist partner, bringing her cotton train to market – in a star-crossed affair that may or may not survive their conflicted allegiances amidst the tides of battle.
This atmospheric debut novel draws readers into the Mexican port city of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande from Texas’s southern tip. It’s 1863 and Matamoros has gained sudden strategic importance for the Confederates, since the Union has blockaded all the Southern ports. Clayton Wilkes, a gambling den owner, con artist, smuggler, and scoundrel, is a plantation owner’s son and apparent Confederate sympathizer, though actually he’s a Union spy. His long-ago love is fellow swindler Allie Stoneman, a Confederate widow who comes to Matamoros to sell her cotton crop. Old feelings resurface between Allie and Clay, but she realizes he’s helping the Yankees and stealthily counters his efforts. A substantial cast engages in double-crosses and side scams against the backdrop of the battle for Texas.

Kahn’s descriptions create urgency and ambiance. Clay’s bar smelled like “tobacco smoke, chorizos grilled in the kitchen by Milagra, his ancient Mexican cook; the sweet perfumed women at the bar, warm beer, burning kerosene and oiled boot-leather.” This poetry only falters during Clay and Allie’s love scenes, which are weighed down by clunkers such as “their mouths met like hungry animals.” The romantic subplot feels hollow in a book full of tragedy, but all the con artistry and the tensions of wartime more than make up for it.

History aficionados will appreciate how well Kahn weaves facts into fiction. Thespian John Wilkes Booth, Clay’s relative “by marriage—or at least by adultery,” is well integrated into the plot, as are various pivotal events. Kahn never romanticizes the war, painting sympathetic portraits of deserters while taking jabs at profiteers. Readers looking for a strong sense of time and place, most particularly Texas history lovers, will find this hits the spot.

Takeaway: Texas history aficionados will love this dramatic tale of love, double-crosses, and sorrow toward the end of the Civil War.

Great for fans of Tina Juarez’s South Wind Come, Edwin Shrake’s Blessed McGill.

Production grades
Cover: B-
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: B
Editing: A
Marketing copy: C+