A year has passed since the bloody battle of Alma in the Crimea. Jack Lark, a working class Londoner who has scraped his way through the ranks by deception but survived with his men though courage and sheer ability, has arrived in the hot deserts of Bhundapur, India, to assume the role of Captain Danebury, a man left dead in the Crimean mud. This is no easy posting, even if it were genuine. The kingdoms of India in the 1850s are in the process of annexation by the British invaders. ‘Danebury’ and his redcoats, under the control of Major Proudfoot, are posted in the territory of the mighty Maharajah of Sawadh, whose right to rule is challenged by British bureaucracy and now by force.
When Lark escorts Isabel Youngsummers and her father, the fort’s Reverend, on a picnic to a romantic tower in the desert, they are ambushed by a rebel force led by the black robed Tiger. Despite putting up the bravest of fights, a nearly defeated Lark is saved by the lancers of the Maharajah who mercilessly slaughter all Indian fighters, whether in the service of the Crown or of the Tiger, but keep alive the British, no doubt, Lark suspects, for some nefarious purpose. But when Lark’s true identity is revealed and the British come after him seeking indignant vengeance, Lark and Isabel seek sanctuary with the enigmatic, English-speaking Maharajah. From that point onwards, Lark must decide where his loyalties lie – with a ruthless Indian king fighting for his dynasty and land or with his fellow Englishmen who would hang him as soon as look at him. It is complicated. Allegiances are muddled and it’s not simply a matter of fighting for a good cause or for what is right. Sometimes loyalties go deeper than one expects and honour must follow its own path.
The Maharajah’s General is the second in Paul Fraser Collard’s Jack Lark series. Its predecessor, The Scarlet Thief, was an exciting debut but it was too brief, too rushed and not easy to engage with emotionally. This second book is another matter entirely and Collard is to be congratulated for producing a confidant, rich and exciting novel that gave me all the ingredients I would want for a historical adventure of the highest order.
The Bhundapur setting provides an appealing backdrop to a story of heroism, conflict, justice and romance. The blossoming feelings between Isabel and Jack are tender and treated as such throughout the novel. They are also tested by the reactions of each to the exotic beauty of the Maharajah’s court. In tandem with this is the volatile relationship between Jack and the Maharajah and his family. Jack’s sympathies, not to mention our own, are severely tested and attracted by the glitter and almost medieval honour codes of the Indian palace. Matters aren’t helped by the English officers – a more conceited, overfed and over-brandied bunch would be impossible to imagine. But we also meet men of rank and file among the redcoats and it is these men who are shown to be most honourable and brave. Jack wishes to be an officer but not for the trappings of power but to lead these men to victory. He wants to fight, to lead and to win. It’s not surprising, really. He is very good at it.
The Maharajah’s General is an adventure; a very well-written and pageturning boy’s own story. It excels at this while hinting at complex emotions within the figure of the hero, Jack Lark. It also means that women are valued more for their beauty and rebellious spirit than for their brains and, although Isabel is an attractive heroine, she is a product of her times as well as the genre. Nevertheless, there are hints here that there is far more to her.
I found The Maharajah’s General a fun and almost comforting read. It has an old-fashioned air to it that I liked very much. By the end of it I felt hooked to the series and very happy that there are several more to come. One thing is for sure, The Maharajah’s General has raised the bar for Paul Fraser Collard – and for Jack Lark – and the standard is now set very high for what is to come.
The Scarlet Thief