This is so much more than military history. Smith has established a style of bringing individual players to life - brave and cowardly, brilliant and incompetent, or just plain ordinary - while driving forward his plot remorselessly. You know how it is going to end, but you are desperate to know what is going to happen to the individuals whom Smith has brought to life so vividly. Some of these people are fascinating: the Australian sheep-farmers who turned their weekend soldiering into military competence and bravery; the Indian professionals who had their loyalty so severely tested by the Japanese; the Japanese officers at the pinnacle of their careers; the dour Scottish sergeant-major who led his soldiers out of danger; several women who show their courage in different ways - and so on.
Smith takes an analytical and challenging look at the sheer awfulness of what happened, and it makes sobering reading. Our strategic assumptions were wrong, and we assembled the wrong force, giving them the wrong orders. A bad hand can be played well, yet, with some honourable exceptions, we failed to do even that. You read with equal fascination the story of the officer who stems the tide with his inspired leadership and the story of the officer who made the culpable decision to withdraw when there was no need to.