5 of 5 stars
Historical Fiction British Empire, India
Jack Lark barely survived the Battle of the Alma. As the brutal fight raged, he learned the true duty that came with the officer’s commission he’d taken. With his stolen life left lying on the Crimean battlefield, he grasps a chance to prove himself a leader once more. Poor Captain Danbury is dead, but Jack will travel to his new regiment in India, under his name.
Jack soon makes more enemies, but this time they’re on his own side. Exposed as a fraud, he’s rescued by the chaplain’s beautiful daughter, who has her own reasons to escape. They seek desperate refuge with the Maharaja of Sawadh, the charismatic leader whom the British Army must subdue. He sees Jack as a curiosity, but recognises a fellow military mind. In return for his safety, Jack must train the very army the British may soon have to fight…
It is beginning to become clear to me, that the quite excellent Jack Lark series from Paul Fraser Collard, are about much more than superbly written, tightly plotted and immensely satisfying stories set in the mid-19th Century. They are all-involving, intriguing and all of that and more. The more, being, well, what they’re giving me, is working on a variety of levels.
Paul has come up with a sneakily clever idea of re-generating his ‘Jack Lark’ – well, in the books I’ve read so far – with each tale. Enabling him to be not so much born again, but at least assume a new persona and begin anew at the start of each book. Still with the baggage – not to say problems – from the previous novel, but also from his own personal beginnings.
While he is pretending to be something he is not, his motives are different from what you might think. He’s not a Jack The Lad Lark, doing it for financial gain, he is in effect fighting the class conventions of his time. From both sides, as it were. Many in the lower classes seemingly fought against those who wanted to make something more of themselves, by dragging them back, branding them class traitors and basically operating under the idea that ‘rubbish like us can’t change our station in life’ They’ve been dealt the wrong hand, and they’re sticking. Those who wanted more, felt they had more to offer, basically annoyed because they showed the others’ lack of ability to change themselves. Jack Lark is from a typical – for the period – working class background, so his future was bleak before he joined the army and his future in the army, as cannon fodder, was going to be bleak, and short. But he sees something in himself that says “no!”
At the end of the first book, The Scarlet Thief, Jack’s way out is given to him – albeit perhaps unwillingly – by a Captain about to take up a commission in India. So here, we start with Jack arriving in India as someone he isn’t. He soon realises, that everyone out there is pretending to be people they’re not as well. Of course, having a go at the class system in India, is kicking at an open door, the easiest of easy targets. It’s what you do with it, that makes the difference. Paul FC, I think (well, look what I say here is what I got from it, even if it wasn’t what PFC intended) shows that Jack is being himself, while being someone else. The people he meets are never themselves, while being something society has demanded. Those who command are also pretending to be something they’re not. Competent. And civilised, even. English manners (of the period) are seen, by us now, as a pretence, a mask society was felt to demand. Too deep? I don’t know. Intriguing and worth reading the books for, absolutely certainly.
Interestingly, and shocking to Jack when someone is astute enough to point it out/notice – he is pretending to be someone he is not, on more levels than the obvious. He is pretending to be a Captain in the British Army in India. Pretending to be a ‘normal’ person, when under that, worryingly for Jack to think, his ‘true nature,’ is a ‘corroded soul,’ who finds joy and fulfilment in fighting and killing. That’s what Jack fears is underneath.
The other characters out in India where Jack ends up, are also more than just stock British in India, mid-19th Century. Jack upsets more than a few of them of course, partly by being himself. Their anger is not because he has committed a criminal deception by impersonating a Captain, but that he deceived them. By being himself, he is making fools of them, this they realise and they come to see that he has exposed their gullibility and showed them not just that they aren’t up to the job, but that he was.
Jack Lark may often not be the real thing, but these books most certainly are. They read easily and at a good pace, so it’ll pay you to slow down and savour them. The evocation of British Army life and conditions of the period is absolutely superb. I started to sweat when he reached India, and that wasn’t just because of the narrow squeaks, daring escapes, and the backs to the wall desperate close quarters fighting. I’m pretty sure I got sunburn reading this book!
Unmissable, unputdownable – only thing wrong? It wasn’t twice as long. Buy the books, buy the series, for the wonderfully written, evocative adventures, and you get so much more, for free!
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