Andrew Roberts spared no effort in writing a new biography of Napoleon. He spent a lot of time with the archives, toured many of the sites of Napoleon’s battles (the vast majority of them, in fact), and just spent a lot of time meditating on the subject and being a general fanboy. Certainly, there is something to admire in an introduction that admits, “I would also like to apologize profoundly to Jérôme Tréca and the staff of Fontainebleau Palace for setting off the burglar alarms in Napoleon’s throne room no fewer than three times.

He is, probably deservedly, a little too self-congratulatory for having access to more source material than previous authors. Napoleon III had his uncle’s correspondence published, and that has been the main source for Napoleon’s letters ever since. Unsurprisingly, he had edited the collection for content, and it turns out that only about 2/3ds of the surviving letters had been published. The Foundation Napoleon embarked on a project to publish it all in 2004, and Roberts availed himself of this fifteen volume collection. I imagine the missing third was overall less important than what had been available, but it’s still an impressive expansion of available resources.

Roberts is undoubtedly sympathetic to, and an admirer of, Napoleon but he certainly does criticize as well. He also points out early on that while Napoleon was undoubtedly the author of his own success, that there were other very talented people around him, some who helped teach and mold him, and some that were capable of handling all the detailed work required for his campaigns. I do think he lets Napoleon off too easily on  some of the more controversial subjects (most notably to me is the departure from Egypt; the analysis was sound—he couldn’t really do any good there, and was needed in France—but leaving without even telling your immediate subordinates is still deserting them).

The book is massive, slightly over 900 pages, not including illustrations and bibliography and index. It starts with defining the Buonapartes’ position in Corsica, and the family’s troubles with the incoming French administration of the island, before focusing squarely on Napoleon himself. An epilogue gives a quick guide to what happened to just about everyone involved after his death. In between there is a a very full, if not terribly long, life. One nice bit is that Roberts’ has visited most of Napoleon’s battlefields, and there’s often an aside or two about where a landmark is compared to the current terrain. In a book like this, he doesn’t go into a lot of detail for many battles, but he does give a good overview of the important actions.

Overall, the book never drags, never gets lost in minutia. Roberts is enthusiastic about his subject, and that enthusiasm helps carry the book along, even if it seems to gloss over a few things that could stand some serious appraisal (which would drag out the book). The reliance on letters, and secondarily memoirs helps bring his character to some degree of life, with complexities, contradictions, humor, and of course a large degree of energy and determination. I’d say it’s the best biography of Napoleon I’ve read, but really so far it’s in a class by itself, and it is hard to imagine there are many others that can begin to live up to its scope.