In The Scarlet Thief, an ambitious but impoverished redcoat saw a way for himself out of the gutter when the officer he served as an orderly became deathly ill on a sea voyage to Crimea. Assuming the officer’s name and position, Lark launched himself from the ranks – and found that becoming a leader of men was far more different than mocking officers from the ranks, even aside from the challenges of polite society. But when Lark arrives in Crimea, he finds that news of his ‘demise’ has preceded him. A pat explanation may put away suspicion for the moment, but the charade is bound to unravel, and when it does the soldier wrestling with his conscience will find himself wrestling with his loyalties, too. Can he find a way back into the good graces of the army he loves, but which despises him – or will he find glory by serving an a foreign king, one who resists the increasing British control of India?
The original novel based on Lark’s fraud saw him thrown into the Battle of the Alma, where he floundered before finally finding his way. Here, the kingdom involved, and the sustained siege and battle at the end, are fictitious, albeit loosely based on the India mutiny of 1857 and meant perhaps as a prelude to them. Combat peppers the novels, as even before the British and the defiant maharajah meet in battle, Lark encounters brigands in the wilderness. The finale certainly commands attention, but more unexpectedly interesting was Lark continually wrestling with himself: he doesn’t like living a lie, even though it’s a fairly harmless one. He is a good officer in a fight, proving himself to men on both sides of the line: even those who want him dead admired his skill with a sword. (His skills on a horse…not so much.) But that acclaim is part of the problem, as Lark wonders if he’s good for anything other than killing. He can win glory in battle, but a life?
The Maharjah’s General proved far more interesting than I’d expected, and it ends with Lark in an unexpected position. I’ll have to try The Devil’s Assassin to see where this path takes him. Although there are certain elements of the plot that are…implausible (like a man with no horseback experience being appointed as commander of the lancers on the strength of his performance during an ambush), but Lark is an unusual character, and he combined with the setting and Collard’s writing override occasional quirks.
The Scarlet Thief, Paul Fraser Collard
The Sharpe in India books, Bernard Cornwell. The link is to a list of British Historical Fiction; all the India books are under the Age of Discovery and Early Empire category.