Thursday, 24 July 2014

Above the Fray by Kris Jackson. A Review by Rob Bayliss

Please see below for giveaway information!

Part One – The Ascent  

Battle lines are being drawn as the Union and Confederacy square up to one another. A young Virginian telegrapher, called Nathaniel Curry, leaves his native Richmond to view a balloon flight in Washington. Without realising the implications, and with a youthful sense of adventure, he joins Professor Thaddeus Lowe aboard a balloon that rises to greet the dawn. As an experiment he transmits instructions and coordinates, inadvertently directing artillery fire on a Confederacy position. in his own country. When word leaks out that he was implicated in this attack he is denounced as a traitor and disowned by his own brother. Forced to leave his home, family and sweetheart he seeks employment with Professor Lowe who is putting together a Balloon Corps to assist the Union cause.

The Balloon Corps are a civilian organisation, a motley collection of scientists and aeronautical enthusiasts, supplying valuable information to the army and revolutionising warfare. Yet despite this they are never being truly accepted by those commanding in the field and their contributions go unappreciated.

Following the campaigns and soaring above the battlefields we have an overview of the great events of the American Civil War. It is a war that foretells the horrors that Europe will endure some 50 years later, as technology and industrialisation conspire to create a brutal and bloody conflict of attrition. Musketry gives way to repeater rifles and Gatling guns, cavalry charges yield to trench warfare, while at sea Ironclads clash such as between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor at Hampton Roads in 1862.

Named as a traitor at home and suspected as a spy by both sides, Nathaniel finds himself caught behind enemy lines and has to don the uniform and persona of a Confederate soldier, as he attempts to escape back to the Union side. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the Union spy network and he finds himself being drawn into their web.

Part Two – The Descent

As the war drags on the Confederacy becomes more and more desperate. It becomes clear that they cannot win; the Union has more men, greater industry and better equipment but perhaps lesser generals.

Losses and shortages caused by the Union's blockade stiffens the resolve of the Confederacy.  Nathaniel Curry finds himself being drawn more into espionage, while the Balloon Corps struggles to retain its funding, looked upon by the military as an unnecessary financial drain. In the end it is forced to cease operations.

Nathaniel is caught between conflicting loyalties: slavery disgusts him yet he hates the damage being wrought on his country and family. He hates the immoral world of espionage and yet enjoys the thrill of it. In the madness of war killing loses its moral sting. Along the line he rubs shoulders with numerous Union generals, the Confederate General Robert E. Lee and even Abraham Lincoln, who encourages him to become a full time spy to hasten the end of the war.

An aptly named sequel, The Descent is altogether darker than the optimistic The Ascent. It maps the disbanding of the Balloon Corps, the fall of the Confederacy and the loss of Nathaniel’s morality and his near collapse into shell shocked madness.

Above the Fray is really an extraordinary book. It is meticulously well researched from the science of ballooning to the topographic description of the Civil War battlefields. I found myself totally absorbed in the life of Nathaniel Curry. There is humour here and there, but it is the humour of the gallows, as the war brutalises everyone and everything it touches.

It is a wonderfully written story; the language so fully evokes the lost world of the Confederate States of America, that even I, an Englishman, could hear the different accents in the dialogue. I learnt much about the American Civil War that I never knew before. It almost reminded me of the film Forrest Gump (albeit a very much darker tale), the way young Curry lives through major battles, crucial events and the individuals he meets (even a young Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin). Being in the Balloon Corps surrounded by scientists he is even exposed to the science of the age, able to discuss Darwin's Origin of Species and its implications for religion. Through Curry's eyes we can see the old order being swept away as the modern USA evolves.

The author doesn’t spare our 21st century sensibilities, the ever present evil, and the dehumanizing language of slavery is always in the background. Within these pages we learn the full implications of what “being sold down the river” means: this was when ruthless owners would sell aged slaves cheaply to be worked until death. A just war then, but a terrible one all the same. If only the great powers in Europe had studied the American Civil War in detail prior to 1914, they would have seen the full implications of modern industrial warfare and known it would never all be over by Christmas.

The story of Above the Fray will stay with me for some time. I can't reccommend it highly enough and I would urge that you should read it, too.

Above the Fray -  Part One The Ascent can be found here and Part Two - The Descent can be found here.

The author has generously agreed to offer a free ecopy of both parts. To enter please comment below or comment on this review's associated Facebook thread.

Kris Jackson is an artist and author based in Massachusetts. His website can be viewed at

This review was written by Rob Bayliss. Rob is currently working on his Flint and Steel, Fire and Shadow fantasy series. Part one, The Sun Shard is available at Amazon.


  1. The American Civil war has ways intrigued me but is largely unchartered territory for me. I would love to win a copy of this. Great review Rob

  2. Not usually a book that I would read, but the review has placed before me a book which quite simply must be read. Great review Rob!

  3. The literal overview of the crucal events of the war is a very clever idea. The details the author manages to subtley convey is extraordinary. A thoroughly good read.

  4. The American civil War has always intrigued me but one that is largely unchartered territory for me. I love the idea of reading an account such as this, these men must have been extremely brave to have done this and to get little support or credit is such a shame.
    I would like to win a copy.

  5. 'Gone with the Wind' being one of my favourite books (and films), I know I'd find Kris Jackson's books of the same period fascinating. Thanks for the useful synopsis of the books, and for Rob's review.

  6. I'd like to send each of you a digital copy of both books, with the understanding that if you like them, you'll say so in the appropriate venue, and if you don't you'll keep it under your hats. Please write me at kris at and I'll send you the file in HTML format. This should read properly on most ereaders; if it does not, let me know.