The Scarlet Thief
Redcoats. The word sends a strange thrill through you, doesn’t it? Especially if you’re English, I suppose. Makes you want to start singing ‘Rule Britannia’. And the redcoat era of the British army covers some pretty momentous times. The Jacobite rebellion in the 1740s? The war of American Independence in the 1770s? The Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century? The Raj? The Zulu wars? And then there was the Crimean. Funny thing is that few people if you ask them in the street will be able to tell you much about that war. They might remember that Florence Nightingale served in Scutari. They might know names like Raglan, Lucan and Balaclava? Few will know anything and it’s possible that it would hardly be remembered at all but for Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s an odd period for most of us as it’s still carrying the feel of the Napoleonic era but the army more resembles the defenders of Rorke’s Drift.
Not for me. Strange, really, but I reckon the number of people who will even have heard of the battle of the Alma before reading this book will be surprisingly small. And yet as a kid our family often went to a pub by the river in Ripon that was called The Alma and it had a profound effect on me. You see every pub sign seems to be a coloured animal or some craftsman. The pub sign at the Alma showed redcoats crossing the river in the face of the Russian hordes. It was a stirring thing to see on regular occasions and it coloured my image of the Crimea from a young age.
On to the tale. This debut offering from Paul Fraser Collard is the first tome in the Jack Lark series. It tells the tale (without wanting to risk spoilers) of a low-born proper ‘man’s man’ soldier who by guile and cunning finds himself leading men in the opening salvos of the Crimean campaign among the upper class wastrels that generally occupy the higher ranks. Tied in alongside are threads of a revenge plotline and a nemesis that fits the bill perfectly.
Quite simply, Collard has managed to capture the feel of the Crimea to such an extent that at times I found myself lost in scenes that reminded me faintly of The Charge of the Light Brigade, Waterloo, or Zulu. His descriptions and use of language draw the reader deeply into the world of Jack Lark and make the book eminently readable. The tale is snappy and fast paced and will drag you along by the braces to the end.
Collard has managed to put together an idea for a character and tale that is interesting, refreshing, and not derivative of or directly comparable to most of the current historical fiction and that will earn Jack Lark a solid niche, I suspect, in the manner of Cornwell’s Sharpe, Arnold’s Stryker or Scarrow’s Cato. The book had me wondering to near the end how it would resolve and the final moment fitted absolutely perfectly, giving the epilogue a gold-trimmed finish for me.
The characters are believable and sympathetic (or not where appropriate) and Jack himself is a character that will draw me to purchasing future books in the series without delay or consideration.
It is a rip-roaring novel full of character and action and any writer would be more than pleased to be able to put their name to it, but for a debut work it is quite a stunning piece.
Bravo Mr Collard. Roll on book 2, I say.