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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.

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Written by SJAT

November 24, 2016 at 9:55 pm

Devil’s Assassin

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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

May Author Interview: Paul Fraser Collard

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Starting  today, I will be interviewing an author on the 1st of each month, and I am absolutely delighted to say that my interviews begin this morning with Paul Fraser Collard, author of the excellent Jack Lark series.

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A lover of history and the military, Paul debuted as an author with the superb ‘The Scarlet Thief’ in May of last year, and followed quickly upon that with a  sequel ‘The Maharajah’s General’ in November. The Scarlet Thief made it into my top ten reads of 2013, and the sequel will probably do the same this year (read it in January.) Links of my reviews, purchase sites and more will follow at the end but for now it is my pleasure to pick Paul’s brain. Sit back and enjoy…

What inspired you to write historical fiction, and the eras you write in particular? Also what other authors’ works have influenced you?

I loved history as a child but it was not until I discovered the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell that I really started to read historical fiction. The first one I read was Sharpe’s Honour and I simply devoured it. I cannot think of any other book that captured my imagination in the same way and from there I was inspired to find out more about these men who fought in the red coats. Around the same time I saw Zulu for first time and I was hooked.

I have read every book Bernard Cornwell has ever written and I still think he is head and shoulders above every other writer of historical fiction. The day when my agent, Dave Headley, told me that Bernard Cornwell had provided a quote for the cover of The Scarlet Thief is far and away the pinnacle of my writing career to date!

When I sat down to give writing a go there really was no other type of novel that I could even imagine starting. It just had to be redcoats. The Crimean War seemed to be rather an unknown series of events and it seemed ripe for a new writer and a character like Jack Lark to start their adventures.

Your protagonist in the first two novels, Jack Lark, is one of those loveable rogues, like Han Solo or Jack Sparrow, or Spike from Buffy. Those types of character are renowned as hard to write well, so that they are not dislikeable. How difficult was it keeping Jack in that narrow band between ‘safe’ and ‘dislikable’?

To be honest I didn’t worry too much about making Jack likeable or not. I had a firm idea of exactly who he was going to be and I was determined that he would be his own man. For better or worse, he was going to be Jack Lark and no one else!

I did know that if Jack was going to take centre stage in a long-running series of novels then he had to be an incredibly strong character. I spent an age working on him before I had even finalised the details of where he would start his adventures. I was certain that he had to capture my readers’ imagination enough to bring them back for more. I hope (I still hope!) that I can create each book in such a way that my readers can never be sure where Jack will turn up next and what challenges he will face when he gets there. As I am not tied to a regiment, a campaign or even to a single war, I can take Jack all over the Victorian world and, as he is a rogue, he can take on a role and a life that I could never have created if he was a more traditional fellow.

How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, and people who walk every inch of their locations, and people who research deeper than any mainstream academic. And, of course, there are people who make things up, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.

You are right that these are all viable routes and I am a strong believer that in writing there is no “right” way of doing things; there is just “your” way.

I am definitely an armchair writer and for my research I rely heavily on books and on the Internet. I start any research by reading some very general overviews of the period or the event that I am covering so that I can work out the sequence of events and the main players involved. From there I try to find as many primary sources as I can and this is where the Internet is so fantastic. I doubt I would ever be able to find as many old publications had not so many of them been digitised. There is a great thrill in searching online and discovering a first hand account of the events I am writing about. It is the experiences of the people who were there that really add the detail about what it was really like; from what the weather was like, to what people were talking and thinking about.

I start to write all of this information into a story plan so that I know exactly what goes where. It is only then that I start to weave Jack into these events, plotting his story against the backdrop of the actual things that happened. All of this research finishes up as a 30-40,000-word story plan that I break down into rough chapters and sequences. Then all I have to do is work my way through, fleshing this outline plan out into the full story. Simples!

Given that your main character relies heavily upon deceit and subterfuge to survive and is now a past master at assumed identities, how difficult is it to find a new angle to attack his particular traits and tendencies without seeming stale? I wondered how a second book for Jack could possibly be anything other than a broad repeat of the first, and yet it was thoroughly fresh and different.

I decided early on that Jack would be an imposter. I was fascinated by the tale of Percy Toplis, a rogue and a charlatan who spent a lot of time masquerading as an officer during the First World War. It seemed such a fabulous way of taking a character on a rollercoaster of a journey that I knew I had to make it central to the plot.

However, I am very aware that if the series became just a procession of new identities that happen to be left lying around easily to hand just when Jack needs them, then it would not last very long as I imagine any readers would be put off by such a trite approach. So I have plans for Jack that will see him pulled in all sorts of directions but which do not rely on him simply stealing identity after identity. I will not reveal how I plan to do that. You will need to keep reading the series to find out!

If you could live in any time period and location, which would you choose? And as a counterpart to that, what historical character would you most like to meet and talk to?

I can think of a hundred periods that I would like to experience but only if I was rich! It seems to me that the best experiences in the past were only available to those born with a silver spoon in their mouths (something that the young Mr Lark finds so very frustrating too!) I know that my own ancestors were almost entirely farm labourers and as romantic as that occasionally sounds I am not sure I could handle working so hard!

If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Paul’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that? 

I would have to say that Jack sits at the very heart my books. No matter how well I tell the history, no matter which fascinating backdrop I set the story against, my series will live or die on the success of Jack as a character. I like to think he is unique and although I am sure he shares traits with many other fine protagonists I will try incredibly hard to make sure he is always his own man.

The other key feature of the Jack Lark series is that each book will be set against new events. I will never plod through a single campaign but will flit from country to country, even from continent to continent! I want readers to wonder where the next Jack Lark novel will be set and to be intrigued when they find out that he makes it to Persia, or to India or even to America.

Oh and then there are the battle scenes! I love writing battle sequences and I want them to really grab a reader by the throat. I promise that every book will be full of them!

* For reference, my own thoughts on this are that Paul’s novels are the perfect mix of action, humour, danger, history and intrigue. They hit the spot on numerous levels at once, while being set in little-used milieu, so that they feel refreshing. *

Time for the obvious question, I guess. If your books were ever optioned as a movie or series, who would you like to see play Jack Lark? I’m sure a name must have crossed your mind at some point.

I’m not very good at answering this question, as I cannot think of anyone who matches my mental picture of Jack. I do know I would like to find out! So if anyone reading this wants to make my books into a film or TV series then I will be ready to come to the casting to see who gets the part!

How would you describe your process as a writer? I know people who have every last crease in a supporting character’s face documented and his entire family back four generations to make sure they don’t miss anything. I know people who are intuitive writers and don’t truly know how the book will end until they get there. I know people who write carefully with lovely fountain pens on pads and then later transcribe and I know others, who hammer at the keyboard whenever their distractions leave them alone for a minute. How do you work?

Well, either fortunately, or unfortunately, I am still just a part-time writer. Working 50-60 hour weeks really cramps my writing time! So I have to work where and when I can and the vast majority of my writing is done on the train to and from work. Writing novels on a train can be a little challenging but it does make me very disciplined at simply sitting down and getting on with it and making the most of every single minute that I can find. I simply don’t have time to plan each session in great detail or to agonise over what I am going to write. I find a seat (not always easy!) and then hammer away. On a good day the writing gushes out of me but even on the days when every word feels like it is being ground out I still plough on knowing that I can always re-work and improve it later.

In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)

This is definitely something that I refuse to let myself think about. I find it difficult to go back and read either The Scarlet Thief or The Maharajah’s General as I always see bits that I would now do differently. I try to accept that my writing ability and taste is changing as I go along and so I try to be proud of what I have done without agonising about how I could now do it so much better.

I would say there are bits from The Scarlet Thief that I wish hadn’t been cut! There are a few scenes still sitting quietly on my hard drive that I may just recycle at some point!

What are you reading at present?

I am currently reading all sorts of books about World War Two, from fiction to non-fiction. I love Ospreys (from any period) and have half-a-dozen on my desk at home waiting for me to dip in and out of in the coming weeks. I am also completely fascinated by the Forgotten Voices series that was put together by the Imperial War Museum and which record the stories of the men and women who fought in the Second World War. I think that these are utterly compelling reading and I find them nearly impossible to put down.

One of the downsides of being a writer is that I now don’t have a lot of time to read fiction. My to-be-read pile is now huge and I cannot wait for my next holiday so I can start to make a dent in it. I am also quite obsessed with apocalyptic fiction and my son and I are working our way through the entire series of The Walking Dead graphic novels. There is nothing better than a zombie apocalypse for a last thing at night read!

And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? What we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years?

I have so much that I want to do; there are just not enough hours in the day! I am working on more Jack Lark novels alongside some short stories set before The Scarlet Thief. I don’t want to jinx anything so I won’t reveal more about any of these for the moment but I hope to be able to soon! All I will say is that there are plenty more Jack Lark adventures to come.

I have also embarked on another series, this time one set in World War Two. The first novel is now on its second draft and the project has my agent’s backing which is incredibly exciting. I have quite a lot to do, including working through some fantastic suggestions from the brave souls happy to help me out by reading my work at the first draft stage (thank you Robin and Jamie!) I am having a blast writing it and I am really looking forward to seeing if this one will make it anywhere.

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My huge thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer my questions and enlighten us as to what makes him tick as a writer. I cannot think of a better author to have kicked off the interviews. If you have not read his novels, I seriously urge you to go pick one up and get started. Shuffle it to the top of your list.

Visit Paul’s website here, follow him on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. Then check these out:

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The Scarlet Thief (Jack Lark 1) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

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The Maharajah’s General (Jack Lark 2) available at Amazon and all good stores, and read my review here.

All that remains is to say once more a huge thank you to Paul Fraser Collard and to look forward to his next work. In the meantime, go buy, catch up and enjoy the adventures of Jack Lark.

The Scarlet Thief

with one comment

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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