The True Soldier
© 2014 Paul Fraser Collard
Jack Lark hadn’t intended to get involved in a civil war. He’d come to America bearing the letters from a friend who had fallen in combat, a man whose side he had stood by even when things grew grim and their unit was routed completely. But his friend had a powerful father, and a beautiful sister, and …well, things happen. Before he knew it, Jack Lark found himself wearing the uniform of a sergeant in the Federal army, there to serve as a bodyguard to the somewhat useless brother of his friend. Disliked by his largely Irish brigade and their naive officers, who regard his battle-weary advice as British arrogance, Lark finds himself marching with an army of fools into the first battle of the Civil War. But Irish toughs and wars aren’t enough of a challenge for Jack Lark, no sir — he has to let two women, equally problematic, into the picture.
I started reading the Jack Lark novels a year or or so ago: they’re basically an imitation of Cornwell’s Sharpe novels (which Cornwell seems to appreciate- – he’s called them “Brilliant”) , featuring an up-from-the-ranks soldier thrust into the brass. Previous books have seen Jack fighting in Crimea, India, Persia, and Lombardy, but this book brings him to familiar shores. Lark has no ideological interest in the war; questions of the Union, slavery, and states’ rights are little concern to him. Lark is a soldier; his talent is fighting, commanding, and killing. He stands in contrast to some of the other characters in this novel, whose heads are filled with great ideals — or strange plots, in the case of the beautiful but patently viperous Elizabeth. Because Lark chaffs with so many of the other characters — the Irish toughs who assault him in the street and later realize he’s their officer (…Patrick Harper, get back to England!), the other officers who are resentful and jealous — I assumed things would go poorly for Lark here, and sure enough on the next book he’s wearing a Confederate uniform.
I enjoyed The True Soldier well enough, but it’s one of the weakest in the series for me — possibly because it involves a battle that I’m already roughly familiar with, so there’s none of that thrill of the unknown that I got when reading about Jack’s time in central Asia. Some of the dialogue strikes me as unrealistic for 1861, particularly the fulsome rhetoric about the United States being a place for all races, creeds, etc. Collard remarks in his historical note that he drew it from a speech of the time, but it’s all over the place; his characters would be more at home in 1968 than 1861! In the next book Lark evidently goes behind Confederate lines in disguise, and then later drifts into Mexico, so we’ll see if things get any more realistic. Those who enjoy historical fiction purely for the combat should know that Bull Run appears late in the game here, around the 70% mark. Stonewall Jackson’s brigade makes a guest appearance for those who know a little about the battle; Lark is amazed by their refusal to budge during the moment that gave Jackson and his brigadetheir obdurant nickname.
On a side note, Jack Lark really is a Sharpe stand-in. Not only has he lost all of his money and Indian loot on a French woman, but he makes the same speeches to raw infantrymen about the importance of being able to Stand and fire three shots per minute. I don’t mind it in the least, but I keep giving Lark a Yorkshire accent that a London boy wouldn’t have!