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He was going back to what he had always been.
He had returned to the one place he had thought of as home in
an attempt to build a new life on the foundations of the past.
He had been wrong.
He was no longer a boy who had worked at his mother's
beck and call. He was a soldier, a redcoat. He did not
belong in a gin palace. He belonged on the battlefield,
where his talents had a rightful place.
He had tried to deny who he was.
He would not do so again.
This is the fifth book in the Jack Lark series, and I must confess to not having ever read any of the others before I accepted a review copy. I'm not well-read on the European wars of the mid 1800's, although I have some knowledge of the earlier wars of the 19thc covered in Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series. To be honest, it would not be fair to compare the two series, because, although there are some similarities, there are a lot of differences too. Collard's character, Lark, is a very different kettle of fish to Cornwell's Sharpe. Lark is as dark and as morose as a 'dark' character can be. He rarely laughs, or shares a joke, and he has extreme difficulty in containing his anger. He also keeps his cards close to his chest. He is the archetypal soldier suffering from combat stress, the horror of war is etched deeply into his psyche, and he struggles with his own sense of self. He doesn't seem to have quite worked out whether he is a good person or not.
|Gin Palace in Shoreditch London|
The tale of The Last Legionnaire begins in 1859 and Jack Lark returns home to his mother's gin palace after years of fighting in the Queen's army. He is a mysterious character, and as he tries to rebuild his life, he soon realises that people have changed whilst he's been away, and he no longer feels an affinity with the old place. In the meantime, we learn that Jack once had a girl, her name is Mary and she works in the gin palace alongside his mother. At first we think she might still hold a candle for him, and she probably does, she blows hot and cold, but it seems that Jack can't do anything right in Mary's eyes and it soon the heat is turned permanently to off.
It soon becomes apparent that God is laughing at all of Jack's plans for a new life and he realises that not everybody wants to go along with his ideas. When he tries to fight off the protection gang, who come demanding money from his poor old ma, it is evident his knight in shining armour act is not appreciated especially when it worsens the situation, rather than solves it. When Jack refuses to give in to the gang, a tragic event forces him to accept an offer from his old intelligence officer, Major John Ballard, known to Jack as 'The Devil' who has a mission for him.
After the tragic event, Jack realises that he has no choice but to go on Ballard's mission, taking Mary and her son Billy with them, seeing as she has no where else to go. Ballard, seeing Mary's predicament, who that the girl and her boy go with them, she to cook and clean for them, and the boy to act as a lookout and general helping hand. Throughout the book, we see two sides to Ballard. With Mary, he is kind and a gentleman, with Jack, we sometimes get a glimmer of concern, and at others, it is quite clear, that Ballard views him as a mere pawn in his game. Ballard is a shadowy character and we only get to the bottom of his intentions at the end of the book. One thing for sure, is that he holds the key to Jack's future, and without him, Jack will never regain his identity.
Ballard's party includes another character, a man called Palmer who is also in the pay of Ballard. Palmer is an old war veteran, down to earth and not the sort that stands for any belligerence. He and Jack don't hit it off straightaway, but later, they are thrown together in circumstances that will leave them relying on each other for their lives. Palmer's character adds another dimension to the dynamics of Ballard's party and offers Jack a kind of ally of sorts.
Jack tries to make things better with Mary, he knows he has ruined her's and Billy's life and is desperate to try and do the right thing. He takes an interest in Billy, but Mary is not happy with the influence he has over her boy and rages against him. Poor Jack, this left me feeling sorry for the poor bloke every time he goes near her, and I was struggling to understand how he managed to keep his explosive temper at bay during her constant berating. I wanted to shout, "just give the poor bloke a chance, why don't you?" But, you have to have empathy for Mary, because she has lost everything, because of Jack. She had all that she needed working at the gin palace, but now, here she was, some where in France, on her way to Italy, forced to march alongside a great French army. Not the kind of life she'd had in mind.
The heart of Ballard's mission lies in a battle, the Battle of Solferino. This was the decisive engagement in the Second Italian War of Independence, a crucial step in the Italian Risorgimento. The nationalists struggle to unite Italy, divided amongst France, Austria, Spain and a variety of independent Italian states. The battle took place near the villages of Solferino and San Martino, Italy, south of Lake Garda between Milan and Verona. Until this book, I had no idea about this bloody, devastating battle which took place on the 23rd of June 1859 in the Italian summer heat.
The confrontation was between the Austrians, on one side, and the French and North West Italian Piedmontese forces, who opposed their advance. In the morning of 23 June, after the arrival of emperor Franz Joseph, the Austrian army changed direction to counterattack along the river Chiese. At the same time, Napoleon III ordered his troops to advance, causing the battle to occur in an unpredicted location. While the Piedmontese fought the Austrian right wing near San Martino, the French battled to the south of them near Solferino against the main Austrian corps.
It is into this chaos that Jack, Palmer and poor little Billy is thrust. Jack and Palmer are given their assignment and the guises of French Foreign Legion soldiers, in which lies their quarry. Their task is to find a nameless soldier with blonde hair, aged about 22 amongst thousands of men. It seems like an impossible task. This nameless soldier is the key to all their lives, and Palmer and Jack must succeed, or die. It is here that the talent for battle writing shines from the author's pen. As Jack and Palmer, and a variety of other characters fight their way through a blood-soaked field, laden with gore and dead humanity, we see what they see, feel what they feel, and hear what they hear. If you ever want to know what 19thc soldiers went through, read this book. Its all there.
As the story reaches its climax and its penultimate scenes, the reader is left wondering how things are going to turn out for Jack. The balance of everyone's lives and plans are left hanging in the air, but resolution comes in the end, and not the way everyone might have planned it, but the way is left for the next book.
For me, this was a step outside my usual comfort zone and I enjoyed the trip immensely. I particularly enjoyed the first few chapters in Victorian London, and wading through the bloody battle grounds and having the French Foreign Legion involved was also an interesting dimension. Paul Collard is a fabulous writer and I wish him luck with the next in the series and highly recommend this book to those who enjoy this era and anyone who loves reading historical fiction.
About the Author
Paul's love of military history started at an early age. A childhood spent watching films like Waterloo and Zulu whilst reading Sharpe, Flashman and the occasional Commando comic, gave him a desire to know more of the men who fought in the great wars of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
At school, Paul was determined to become an officer in the British army and he succeeded in winning an Army Scholarship. However, Paul chose to give up his boyhood ambition and instead went into the finance industry. Paul stills works in the City, and lives with his wife and three children in Kent.