The Lone Warrior | Paul Fraser Collard | 2015, Pb 2016 | Headline | 369p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1857 and after several years of heroism on the battlefields of the Crimea, India and Persia, Jack Lark has at last won the right to fight and die under his own name. No longer must he hide behind the names of dead officers, pretending to a rank that isn’t his. It’s all the more ironic, then, that as soon as he can be himself he realises that he no longer knows who that self is. Meandering without purpose, slowly heading back to an England that doesn’t want him, Jack Lark is after a new purpose in his life. It comes unexpectedly. Jack falls for the beautiful Aamira, half Indian and half Irish, and completely unavailable. Unavailable that is until he liberates her from the seedy club where she is forced to work as no more than a desirable slave. When Aamira then asks Jack to escort her on the long and dangerous journey home to Delhi, he is unable to say no. Little do they know that they are about to find themselves trapped within one of the most infamous and bloody episodes of British imperial history – the Indian Mutiny.
The Lone Warrior is the fourth outing for Jack Lark and, as with the others, it’s a stand alone tale. I would suggest that you read the others to watch the development in Jack’s character, not to mention the glories of his military career at the heart of some of the key battles of the mid 19th century, but it does work very well on its own. Indeed, there is a bit of a difference in The Lone Warrior. The novel begins with much of the same spirit exhibited in the other novels – its exuberant boys’ own adventure opening is such fun to read as Jack swashbuckles his way in to the book to deliver the beautiful Aamira from harm. And this is how it continues until the novel reaches Delhi and then the mood changes entirely.
Over the preceding novels there has been increasingly worrying mention of the hardship and injustice endured by the native troops under British command in India. We’ve encountered more than our fair share of arrogant, ignorant and downright dangerous British officers. In The Lone Warrior this comes to a head in its no-holds-barred depiction of the Indian Mutiny. Paul Fraser Collard does not spare us. The book grows increasingly violent and even angry as Jack Lark fights for his life (and those of others) alongside men both brave and cowardly. Artillery and swords dismember body after body, children aren’t spared, both mutineers and British soldiers brutalised, desperate, furious and terribly frightened. Much of the second half of the novel focuses on the siege of Delhi and, although I now and again found it quite repetitively violent and more and more distressing, I was glued to it until late into the night.
At the heart of The Lone Warrior is, of course, Jack Lark. He is a fantastic hero and through him Paul Fraser Collard throws so much energetic light on the British army in India and elsewhere during the 1850s. He combines the gallantry and heroism of an officer at his finest with insight into what life is actually like for those under the thumb of British rule, both within the ranks of the army and outside it, in the streets of Delhi, in the palaces of the Indian princes, and in the London stews. It is a pleasure to spend time with Jack Lark and, although his mood is bleak at times and although he is frightened by the battle madness that seizes him and makes him kill like a demon possessed, this novel is no different.
This is a man’s world. Women are there mostly to be beautiful, rescued and then to fight alongside our hero. There is, though, a touch of the uncontrollable and unknowable about them. They are exotic, living in exotic worlds. Aamira does indeed follow the pattern but, as with Jack, there are surprises in the way her character develops. By the end of this story, so traumatised by the Indian Mutiny, nothing happens as we expect. I like that.
As always, Paul Fraser Collard, a fine writer, does a great job of evoking the intense heat, mystery, splendour and poverty of mid 19th-century India. You can almost taste it. I knew that Jack Lark and the novels were on a confrontation course with the Indian Mutiny and I couldn’t wait for it. I was not disappointed. It’s hard to imagine a better guide than Jack Lark.