The Last Legionnaire | Paul Fraser Collard | 2016 | Headline | 403p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is London 1859 and Jack Lark has returned to London, tired from his years fighting for Queen and country in the major battle arenas of the 1850s, in the Crimea, Persia and India, most recently in the Indian Mutiny. For all this time, Jack Lark has disguised his lowly origins in London’s rookeries by fighting under assumed names, as a Captain. Finally, Jack’s courage has earned him the right to use his own name, to fight as an officer in his own right, but Jack has had enough. He wants to go home.
It’s hard to imagine that anything could add a rosy hue to London’s slums but distance seems to have done that for Jack. But now that he’s back, all of Jack’s nostalgia deserts him when he’s confronted with the reality of his mother’s gin palace and the odious thugs who run the local protection racket. Not even the girl he used to love, Mary, is as he remembers. She has grown older, wiser, and now has a child of her own, Billy. Jack’s instincts are to put aside his uniform, to protect his family, but this, he senses, may be his undoing. Jack wants to leave the violence of his past behind him, but he can’t. He needs to go back to the battle and when, in a desperate moment, he encounters intelligence officer Major John Ballard – the Devil – Jack knows it’s time to return to war. This time in northern Italy where England fights alongside the French to repel the Austrians. But if Ballard is involved it can never be that simple and so it isn’t.
The Last Legionnaire is the fifth novel in Paul Fraser Collard’s thrilling and escapist historical adventure series featuring Jack Lark, a charismatic hero who dominates the page, for his battles in war as well as for the inner conflict that marks him. Jack has changed through the books, through the successions of wars that he has made himself endure, for what he has seen and done, and so I would recommend that you read the series from the beginning. Having said that, though, each of the novels stands alone very well and that is just as true of The Last Legionnaire.
For the first time we see Jack on his home turf, surrounded by people who know what he was like before he put his own identity aside. It’s strange seeing Jack without his uniform, serving behind the bar in a brilliantly depicted Victorian gin palace in London’s Whitechapel slums – you can almost smell the squalour and dirt; the reliance of the poor on a cup of gin, falsely mixed into different flavours from one barrel in the yard. But it’s as clear to us as it is to Jack that this isn’t the life for him and so the novel progresses to its next chapter, when Jack, with Mary and Billy in tow, follows the Devil himself, Major John Ballard, to war in Italy.
Yet again, Paul Fraser Collard teaches me about a 19th-century war I knew nothing about. I must admit, though, that the Indian wars and the Indian Mutiny are a tough act to follow and I think that The Last Legionnaire does suffer a little from this. Nevertheless, as usual, Jack throws himself into the heart of the battle, wrestling with his inner demons while trying to do what good he can for the innocents caught up in the war. Jack usually has a woman keeping an eye on him and this book is no different – Mary is an interesting heroine, not least because she knows Jack better than anyone.
I am so fond of this series and The Last Legionnaire doesn’t disappoint. Its first half in particular is so compelling. This is a vivid portrait of Victorian London at its worst. The battle sequences of the second half are as exciting and bloody as ever while Ballard’s mystery adds something extra. The novel also ends with great promise for Jack’s next adventure and I can’t wait. The sound of it makes me think it could be very special indeed.
As usual, The Last Legionnaire is a stunning hardback – this is such an attractive series.