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Last Legionnaire

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I’ve been a fan of the Jack Lark books since I first picked up ‘The Scalet Thief’. Paul Fraser Collard has created a character and an overall story that was fresh, new and exciting, and while it looked like it might be a ‘one hit wonder’, he has consistently proved otherwise. I have heard Jack Lark being described as ‘like Sharpe’. To some extent that’s true, but we’re just about at the point now where I would say Sharpe is like Jack Lark, for he is a far more vivid, exciting and three dimensional character than his Napoleonic comparison.

Lark has been through 5 books now. He has been in Britain, the Crimea, India and Persia. What could Collard do with him next? Where could he take him? To be honest, I had certain expectations with this book. The title evokes certain things, and before I picked it up, my mind was already loaded up with Algeria, forts, white feathers, berbers and exotic African desert scenery. I was wrong, of course. The Foreign Legion has been involved in conflicts all over the place, not just in North Africa.

Having been finally released from the military and retired under his own name, Jack returns to London, hoping to pick up where he left off a decade ago. Here we are treated to a view into his past, prior to even the first book, and a view of mid 19th century Lond that rivals any I have read. Unfortunately, he is unable to keep himself out of trouble and, when his actions inadvertantly put those about whom he cares in danger, he finds himself in an untenable position.

In the end he is given a good old ‘offer he can’t refuse’ by a former Intelligence officer he neither trusts nor likes, and finds himself shipped off to Italy on a mission to find a boy who has fled his comfortable life and joined the French Foreign Legion, and to bring him back. But things are never as easy as they seem, and the Legion are committed to war against the forces of the Austrian Empire. His mission is further complicated by the addition of the London girl he once loved and her young son to the travel group – a pair he has vowed to look after. He must now protect people while throwing himself into deadly danger to retrieve a boy who might not even want to come home.

It’s a rich plot. All Collard’s books have rich plots, but this one overtakes them all, in my opinion. Though all his novels have been good, the first (The Scarlet Thief) I had still held to be my favourite. I do believe, though, that The Last Legionnaire has overtaken it to become the best in the series, and by quite some margin at that. The exploration of Jack’s origins and his return to old haunts leads to a very complex examination of his character and motivations, which is given far more space than in previous books. Additionally, we are moving into a whole new era. The war into which Jack is heading is one of those pivotal moments where the old world meets the new. This is a time when the ancient butts up against the mechanised, (cavalry charges and railways, for instance) with spectacular results.

As always, Collard’s writing is flawless. His prose is excellent, his characterisation vivid and realistic, his description cinematic and his pace relentless. The story will enthral and fascinate you, you will learn things (I know I did), and at times you will feel the edge of heartbreak. Moreover, it is anything but predictable.

This is an absolute cracking book. Collard proving he deserves to be placed among the very best writers in the genre. HIGHLY recommended.

Written by SJAT

November 24, 2016 at 9:55 pm

Pasha – Julian Stockwin

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I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to be back at sea once again with Captain Thomas Kydd. Though the majority of my reading is of novels set in the ancient world or at most in the high medieval era, every now and then I like to dip into another era for a change, and Stockwin is fast becoming one of my absolute favourites.

If you’ve not read any of the Kydd series, I’d best warn you that you might not want to start with this volume, Pasha being the fifteenth book in the series. Of course, the bright side of that is that if you haven’t read any of them, I’m switching you onto not just one book, but 15.

Set in the late 18th to early 19th century, the series follows the nautical adventures of one Thomas Kydd, a low born southern Englishman who rises through the ranks of the British Navy, as well as those of his confidential secretary Nicholas Renzi. The first volume begins in 1793, meaning – those of you familiar with the era will probably already have thought of this – the reader has some of the most amazing and world-changing events to come.

So on to Pasha – Volume 15 – which takes place in 1807. After the disastrous debacle in South America from book 13 and the brief sojourn in the Caribbean in book 14, Kydd is called back to England. Fearing for his career and even legal repercussions after South America, our hero returns with his ship l’Aurore to face his doom. What he is returning to is far from what he expected.

More than any other book in the Kydd series I am fearful of giving anything away with Pasha. It is a book far too easy to spoil for the prospective reader, and so I shall attempt to tempt you without detailing too much plot.

As you might guess from the title, this book takes place in the Eastern Mediterranean – the domain of the Ottoman Empire. Sent east from the coast of Spain with orders to put himself at the disposal of the British ambassador in Constantinople, Captain Kydd finds himself at a critical moment in Ottoman history. Allied with both Britain and Russia, the Ottoman sultan is in the unenviable situation of being attacked by their Russian ‘friends’ while being wooed by their enemy the French. The British ambassador is desperate and nervous and on the verge of something precipitous, and Kydd is unable to do much more than do as he is told.

Throw into the mix a British nobleman acting as a spy and intriguer in the court of the Sultan, and things can only become more complex. At stake in this mess is the potential for Napoleon Bonaparte to secure an alliance with the Ottoman Empire and with it, a route for his forces into the wide world without having to break out past the British Navy. So no pressure, then?

Cue intrigue, races under fire, sea battles, imprisonment, escape, trickery, panic, land assaults and so much more in a switchback tale that is easily the best in the series and stands to be one of my top books of the year.

Incidentally, there is one scene in the book that will stay with me for a long time, because it reminds me very closely of one of my favourite movie moments of all time. Remember that scene in Das Boot, where the sub has been stuck on the bottom of the sea and manages to resurface but has to make a run through the Straits of Gibraltar on diesels, with the captain in the conning tower, yelling ‘Verdammt’ as he pounds his fist on the sub while guns blast from both sides? You don’t? Well now go out and watch that movie too! But there is a comparable scene in Pasha that held me with the same power.

Finally, I will say once again that Stockwin’s writing is among the most authentic in the field. Not only has he managed to get the feel of the era in his speech and descriptive, but his own history in the Royal Navy informs everything he writes and lends it an air of authority. Moreover, in addition to that wonderful prose and conversation, in this particular volume, he manages to add in the exotic heady culture of Ottoman Istanbul. It is a win, quite simply.

Kydd is back, and volume 15 is the best yet, full of surprises and excitement.

The book is out today. Go get it.

Written by SJAT

October 9, 2014 at 8:00 am

The Maharajah’s General

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pcmg

Anyone who’s been keeping up with my sporadic review will remember how highly I rated Paul Fraser Collard’s debut novel: The Scarlet Thief. Indeed, a week ago it made it into my top ten reads of 2013.

Well those of you who were tempted by my review into buying it will be pleased to hear that I’ve finished reading the sequel and Collard does not disappoint. Book two of the Jack Lark series is actually better!

Firstly it’s worth noting one thing: the Scarlet Thief was such a nice, unusual, refreshing idea for a tale, one might even be tempted to say ‘unique’ which is something you don’t hear often. Therefore, following up the tale of the imposter officer with a second tale of masquerading as a British captain would seem doomed to being at the very least repetitive, if not downright pointless. Well put that worry aside. Despite leaping into the papery fray with a similar idea at the heart of the tale, the Maharajah’s General is nothing like a carbon copy of the first book.

This novel explores a whole different side of Lark’s life and character and delves a lot deeper into his psychological makeup, giving the reader an unexpected connection with the protagonist. Lark is, after all, an anti-hero and has worn so many metaphorical ‘black hats’ and ‘white hats’ that he has become something of a grey area in himself.

Once more we are treated to absorbing scenery and culture. This time, instead of grimy Victorian England and the cold, barren, bitter Crimea, it is the hot, rocky, lush, evocative lands of India that play host to Jack’s new charade.

Masquerading as a captain who fell in the Crimea, Jack makes his way to the lands of the East India Company to take command of a small force of Redcoats only to quickly cross the paths of a number of venomous or supercilious Englishmen and the enigmatic, exotic and educated Maharajah of Sawadh. When a legitimate replacement turns up to take the same position as Jack, his life is thrown into utter chaos and the thing he has feared since leaving England seems inevitable: discovery and condemnation. The next weeks in which Jack’s fortunes twist and swap back and forth force him to confront his own fears and loyalties and will place him in direct confrontation with both his own conscience and his motherland.

The story is tightly planned and written, the characters three-dimensional and appropriately sympathetic or hateful, and the language and turn of phrase thoroughly engrossing. The feel of the novel brings back moments of The Man Who Would Be King, of 55 Days at Peking, of – yes – Carry on up the Khyber, and of Zulu. A great deal, indeed, of the latter.

Quite simply do yourself a favour and read these books. I’m pretty certain that if you read The Scarlet Thief you’ll already have bought and probably read this too, but if not, get going. Don’t miss this series.

Written by SJAT

January 5, 2014 at 6:08 pm

The Scarlet Thief

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tst

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.

Written by SJAT

June 5, 2013 at 9:19 pm