Tag Archives: American Civil War

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser Collard

Headline | 2017, Pb 2018 | c.400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The True Soldier by Paul Fraser CollardIt is 1861 and Jack Lark has turned his back on the British army after hard years fighting campaigns in Europe, Crimea and India. It’s a sad sense of duty and responsibility that drives Jack to Boston in the United States – Thomas Kearney, a comrade from the French Foreign Legion, never felt able to send his letters back to his family in America while alive but, since his death in battle, in Jack’s arms, it’s now fallen to Jack to do it for him. And so Jack arrives at the door of the wealthy and influential Kearney family in Boston and it’s there he is given new purpose.

War is imminent between the Union and Confederation – volunteers are joining both sides in their thousands. Samuel Kearney is a leading figure behind the scenes for the Unionists and his younger son Robert, as expected, has enlisted as a lieutenant in its army. But Kearney is under no illusion. Charming he might be, but Robert is not a natural soldier and the army he will fight in is untrained and untested. Samuel Kearney has no wish to lose another son to war and so he makes Jack an offer that is hard to refuse – Jack will become a sergeant in Robert’s Company and will be paid to do two jobs: to give the Company the benefit of his experience and skill and, above all else, to keep Robert safe. Elizabeth, Robert’s beautiful sister, adds her pleas to her father’s and she is not easy to turn down. It seems that Jack will also be fighting alongside Elizabeth’s fiancé Captain Ethan Rowell. That could prove to be as much a trial for Jack as facing the Confederates across a battlefield.

The Jack Lark series is one of my very favourites and it’s been a joy (albeit at times an anxious pleasure) to follow Jack’s exploits over the last few years. The novels differ in mood as Jack takes on a succession of different enemies in some of the most famous conflicts of the mid 19th century. In the past Jack has stolen identities and ranks, fighting as an officer under a false name, but his courage and military prowess have never been less than true. But there has been something of the loveable rogue about Jack and this is borne out in some of his exploits and relationships – of which there have been a fair few. But in The True Soldier, the sixth in the series, we have a very different Jack Lark.

Jack now fights as himself and he is no longer an officer. There is no cause left that he wishes to fight for. He is purposeless and his soul is bruised and hardened. But he discovers something of the old Jack Lark in this new challenge in a country that he knows very little about. He learns about the Union cause, the origins of the Civil War, and the drive to rid the United States of slavery. There is much for Jack to believe in, although it’s not that straightforward. Rich Union families, including the Kearneys, employ black servants and the divide between master and servant goes way beyond differences in social standing and wealth. Paul Fraser Collard informs us about all this through the wonderful medium of Rose, Elizabeth’s maid. Rose is a very intriguing and enigmatic character and is a refreshing change from some of the other women that Jack Lark has been drawn to in the past.

In these novels, Paul Fraser Collard never flinches from portraying the true horror of Victorian war and The True Soldier is no different. The American Civil War is shown to be particularly brutal due in part to the contrasting naivety of the American population. The Civil War is only just beginning and soldiers are being seen off with parades, flowers and kisses. Members of Washington’s society drive out in their carriages to watch the first ‘proper’ battle of the war with their picnics. But Jack knows what war is like and he’s proven right here time after time after time, and always in graphic technicolour. Some of the battle sequences are painful to read as men line up to face one another and then shoot. There’s nothing glamorous here about war or Jack’s role in it. It’s angry and bloody. But it never goes too far. Paul Fraser Collard is never gratuitous in his descriptions of battle. You know from what is implied that the reality would have been unimaginably worse.

I’ve always been interested in the American Civil War and I was delighted to hear that the author was sending Jack overseas to experience it. It works well that Jack is placed at the very beginning of the conflict. It means we can watch people change – both those who fought and those who spectated. Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with the Battle of Bull Run and it is brilliantly depicted. Jack Lark might be a fictional character but his role in the conflict seems real and likely, just another of the many immigrants who filled the army’s ranks.

The True Soldier both informs and entertains as, I believe, all good historical fiction should. This novel made me want to do more research on the events it depicts while also immersing me in the more intimate stories of Jack, Elizabeth, Robert, Ethan and Rose – and O’Dowd. I mustn’t forget O’Dowd. This is such a strong series and, while I have such a soft spot for The Maharajah’s General, I do believe The True Soldier could be among the best. I cannot wait to find out what happens next because surely this novel marks a new beginning for this fantastic hero, Jack Lark. As such, if you want to read it as a stand alone novel, then you certainly can.

Disclaimer: Paul Fraser Collard is, I’m honoured to say, a friend of mine. But this in no way affects the honesty of this review. Paul just happens to write great books.

Other reviews and posts
The Scarlet Thief
The Maharajah’s General
The Devil’s Assassin
The Lone Warrior
The Last Legionnaire
Guest post: ‘I am a writer with a plan’
Guest post – ‘Commute writing’

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The Lincoln Conspiracy by Timothy L O’Brien

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 368
Year: 2012
Buy: Hardback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Lincoln Conspiracy by Timothy L O'BrienReview
In the spring of 1865 America mourns the loss of its President, Abraham Lincoln, shot dead by John Wilkes Booth. With the Civil War so recently over – its soldiers not yet demobbed – Washington DC is a dangerous place, brutalised and fed by racism, powerful immigrant gangs, drink, opium, traumatised soldiers, freed slaves and greed. Everyone wants to get rich in the new nation and it’s not hard to do thanks to its many victims.

When detective Temple MacFadden discovers two diaries on a dead body at the B&O Railroad station in the city, his life becomes cheap indeed as everyone who is anyone seeks to have the diaries in their hands. Hardly surprising when one learns that the first is the diary of the president’s grieving widow Mary Todd Lincoln while the other was written by his assassin. Within both, or so all sides believe, lie clues to a conspiracy that claimed the life of America’s president. The peace seems very fragile indeed.

As factions fight to recover the diaries, one man stands in the way: Temple McFadden, the hero of The Lincoln Conspiracy. While Temple tries to work out the significance of the diaries, with the help of his friend Augustus – born a free man in spite of his colour, he does his best to do the right thing despite the efforts of wily spymaster Allan Pinkerton, official thug Baker and Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War – not a man to have as one’s enemy. Temple’s own wife Fiona isn’t entirely on Temple’s side either. A female doctor in these male-driven years, Fiona is more than capable of fighting her own battles and, despite her great love for her husband, she feels driven to protect Mrs Lincoln from the consequences of what is in her diary.

It’s no easy thing for the couple and their friends to stay ahead of the forces against them. They have to lose themselves in Washington’s most frightening places – swamps, prisons, hospitals for the mad, whorehouses – while using their wits to keep ahead.

These are fascinating times, though, and quite apart from the vivid settings, O’Brien feeds the book with details of the period, such as photography, the pullman trains, medicine, the movement of slaves from south to north, the soldiers and generals waiting to go home, including Custer. There are snippets from haunting poems throughout, evoking the hardships of the Civil War and the immediate aftermath, as well as flashbacks which add more colour to our knowledge of Temple’s life.

All is written with a fast, immediate prose, not surprising considering the author is a journalist. The style suits the mood of the investigative tale, peopled by men and women who are compelled to find out the truth while surviving day by day. There is a thrill to it. You can sense they enjoy it despite the dangers and the movement of the chase propels the story on.

While I found the ending less than satisfactory, I thoroughly enjoyed the journey as well as the insight into such a fascinating period of recent history. I’ll be looking out for more from Timothy L O’Brien and hope we meet Temple McFadden again.