1854: The banks of the Alma River, Crimean Peninsula. The Redcoats stagger to a bloody halt. The men of the King’s Royal Fusiliers are in terrible trouble, ducking and twisting as the storm of shot, shell and bullet tear through their ranks.
Officer Jack Lark has to act immediately and decisively. His life and the success of the campaign depend on it. But does he have the mettle, the officer qualities that are the life blood of the British Army? From a poor background Lark has risen through the ranks by stealth and guile and now he faces the ultimate test…
Reading The Scarlet Thief at this point in time was an oddly well-timed choice as it turns out, set as it is in the Crimea. It appears history truly can be cyclical if one compares what is revealed about the origins of the Crimean War with what is happening there now. It was also a closer look at a conflict I’ve never learned that much about, beyond Florence Nightingale and Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. And what a hopeless conflict it was. Paul Fraser Collard paints us a vivid and horrifying picture of life at the front and the terrible cost of life, not just to the armed forces on both sides, but to the innocent inhabitants of the Crimea as well, who were burned out of their houses and robbed of all their possessions in a scorched earth policy to deny resources and cover to the enemy. But The Scarlet Thief is more than descriptions of death and horrible war wounds, there is also a lot of humour and a wonderful protagonist who will capture your heart.
Said character is Jack Lark, former mud lark from London’s seedier streets. As a commoner, Jack’s opportunities for advancement are limited. He will never be able to rise above the rank of a non-commissioned officer, with Quartermaster being the pinnacle of achievement. For a young man set on bettering himself and one who considers many officers incompetents, this is a frustrating situation to be in. He feels that the redcoats are not treated well by their officers and he has some rather progressive (for the time) ideas as to how one should lead his men. The way his frustrated ambitions influence his decisions was interesting, unlike another factor influencing him that I didn’t care as much for—his relationship with Molly. Molly was my biggest problem with this book. Not the character in itself, which was fine, but her story arc and how this was used to move the plot forward felt a little clichéd and it’s a trope we’ve seen many times before. Once Jack and his officer, Arthur Sloames, leave the Aldershot garrison to join the King’s Royal Fusiliers and ship out to the Crimea the narrative picked up and really started speeding up once Jack arrives at Kalamata Bay.
Collard shows the bleak life of the enlisted (or drafted) men in the Victorian British Army, one on the cusp of modernity with its leaders struggling to adjust their thinking and strategies to new materiel and changing social mores. Jack’s leading from the front fits right in with this. Jack starts of despising the other officers thinking them all arrogant aristo’s who are only there because they had the money not because they had the skills, but throughout the book he learns that they are not all alike and comes to view them in a different light. In fact, Jack’s connection with some of his fellows and first his officer are delightful and one of the strengths of the book. The way he bonds with his orderly was wonderful and I loved how he gains respect for his second-in-command Digsby-Brown. I adored the quiet scenes we’re shown of camaraderie between the men and the way that they all become equal, be they enlisted or criminal conscript. But not just Jack’s dealing with his friends is wonderfully written, The Scarlet Thief has a fantastic villain in Sergeant Slater and some more equally distasteful characters, most notable the aptly named Major Peacock.
One element that confused me was the troop formations. There were divisions and brigades and companies and they all had different names and in the end I rather lost track of how the command structure worked and who belonged with whom. This difficulty might be due to my unfamiliarity with the British Army of that era, but this was one of those occasions where an appendix showing how the forces were structured would have been useful. Then again, it seems as if once the battle started the hierarchy in and structure of the army didn’t really matter in any case, as it’s one chaotic mess and many soldiers lost their unit and forgot their orders anyway. The battle depicted is terrifying, chaotic, noisy, stinking of death and blood and an enormous amount of casualties, who often perished from the most gruesome wounds.
The Scarlet Thief is an impressive look at the atrocities of war; unflinching in its descriptions and honest in its assessment of its characters’ human nature in all of its beauty and monstrosity. Collard leaves us with a great set up for the following book, which promises to be interesting and very different from the Crimea. I’m curious to see where exactly Jack will go in The Maharajah’s General and whether he’ll remain there or move on to a new identity after. Needless to say I’ll be back to check in with our Mr Lark in the next book, hopefully sooner than later as I already have the review copy for it on my shelf. The Scarlet Thief is a must-read for any lover of military historical fiction.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.