S.J.A. Turney's Books & More

Reviews, news and inside the world of books.

Posts Tagged ‘collard

Last Legionnaire

leave a comment »

ll

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

Devil’s Assassin

with 3 comments

DEVILS ASSASSIN_HB_MECH.indd

Jack Lark is one of my favourite literary creations of the modern swathe of historical fiction. Paul Fraser Collard’s debut work was one of my top ten reads of the year (and was certainly in the top half of those.) The second book in the series I was a little worried about, since the premise of the first book was new and interesting but really didn’t lend itself to the possibility of a sequel. Somehow, Paul pulled it out of the bag. The second book was amazingly not a carbon copy of the first, and yet managed to continue the theme. The second one, in fact, stepped up the stakes a little. But the question was: what could he do with book 3? He surely couldn’t follow similar lines.

And so he hasn’t. The Devil’s Assassin has taken the story of our favourite fraud and slewed it off at a tangent. No longer is Jack the roguish low-born masquerading as his betters. Or maybe he still is, but in a very different way, and for very different reasons. After his service with the Maharajah in book 2, Jack has made his way south, still in India. He is still living an assumed life, with no money or influence, making it from one day to the next on his wits and luck. But things are about to change. Because someone in his city is about to find out his secret, and that person will have more use for Jack in his employ than swinging on a gallows. And even as military intelligence get their claws into Jack, the Shah of Persia is interfering in international matters and war is looming on the horizon.

And here is the meat of the plot. There is (or are) spy (ies) in the British armed forces, and Jack is set to hunting them. But throughout this intrigue and mystery, there is also a war taking shape. So against a background of military campaigning, our (anti) hero continues to try and unravel the espionage plot. In some respects this book feels like two very disparate stories running concurrently. The war against the Shah is told in such glorious detail, scope, colour and depth that I had largely forgotten the entire spy plot when it suddenly reappeared from behind a bush and shook me by the shoulders. Collard has clearly enjoyed in this book taking an almost unknown British military campaign and bringing it to the reader’s attention, and he does it very well, the manoeuvres and desperate counter offensives described evocatively, but also with enough clarity that the reader can follow the entire thing, on both a personal level and as a grand military action.

Interestingly, this book marks a turning point in the series. It is clear in retrospect that while Collard pulled off a feat with book 2, the whole character of Jack and the premise of the series were resulting in writing the hero into a corner. Sooner or later, something would have to break unless the books were going to turn into those carbon copies we all want to avoid. And when that break happened, it was hard to see how Jack could progress except at the end of a Tyburn knot. And that is the gem of this book. It has achieved the unachievable and given Jack a new lease of life and Collard a universe of possibility with which to proceed.

The character of Jack has definitely grown in this work. The death and destruction that has surrounded his career has begun to change (and haunt) our hero. This is good – not for him, but certainly for us. A character has to grow and change in order to keep the reader’s interest and to inform the book with realism, and Jack is beginning to morph from a sharp young adventurer into an tired war-horse. He has a long way to go yet, but the signs are definitely there.

Paul Collard has a very readable fluid style of writing, which draws the reader along and involves them without ‘dumbing’ anything down. He does not sacrifice style and value for ease of reading, and yet it is an easy read. His characters’ speech is realistic and comfortable for the reader, and his descriptions of exotic locations and cultures are totally immersing, especially when described from the point of view of the stiff Victorian British officer.

In short, after two top books, The Devil’s Assassin is yet another win from a writer at the top of his game. Go get it, folks.

Written by SJAT

May 10, 2015 at 9:25 pm

The Maharajah’s General

with one comment

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

with one comment

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