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by S F Jones

From the very first page of this gripping and minutely-researched historical novel, S F Jones plunges us into the atmosphere of the English Civil War, as seen through the eyes of Colonel George Lisle. We can almost smell the gunpowder and hear the clash of steel as we are brought face to face with Lisle himself, his family and friends, his opponents, and the enemies within his own ranks. We seem to experience at first hand the thrills and the carnage of the Battle of Edgehill and its aftermath.

George Lisle is no fictional all-action hero, but a real historical figure and one the author aspires to know intimately as well as with admiration. A Londoner, Lisle stands out among the Scots officers favoured by the King, owing his position largely to the service he has already given Prince Rupert in the Dutch wars. Lisle’s fortunes will be closely tied to Rupert’s, yet soon he finds he has conflicting loyalties – to his bereaved family, to his unofficial fiancée, and to the people of his home city, as well as to his king.

The graphic battle scenes that dominate the early part of the book give way (just before it gets too much) to a sensitive examination of Lisle’s inner feelings. This is no Richard Sharpe, bedding a new woman with each adventure, but a peace-loving man from a privileged (though not aristocratic) background, whose experiences of war have made it difficult for him to fit into any environment except that of the professional soldier.

Jones does something of a Sharon Penman job on the known facts. The skilful interpretation and reconstruction of recorded historical events gives us a vivid insight into the political machinations going on behind the scenes at Rupert’s headquarters, as well as the tactical decisions and impromptu reactions of the military leaders on both sides. No aspect of Lisle’s experience is left unexplored. The only problem I see with this is that Lisle comes across as simply too perfect. What man would not be glad to follow such a strong, decisive, principled leader into battle? What woman would not want a relationship with this auburn-haired, battle-scarred model of fidelity? S F Jones has gone to great lengths to flesh him out, but he is surrounded by a rose-tinted aura which needs to be stripped away in the sequels the author plans to write.

A few comments on this in its context as a self-published book may be appropriate. The cover is superb in its simplicity, and really sets the scene for what’s inside. There are one or two linguistic oddities that a professional editor/proof-reader would have picked up on, such as the incorrect use of "whom" and a preference for "besides". The use of archaic spellings like "foote" and "trayne" does nothing but confuse the reader, and, although the month-by-month narrative is effective, it may have been a mistake to set the prologue in 1648. Anyone who wants to know what happened to Lisle in 1648 can find out from a history book, but to hint at it in this first of a series of novels is to give the game away. Much better to have concentrated on the events of 1642 and 1643, which are the substance of this opening instalment.

For all that, this is one of the finest historical novels I have read for some years (Penman included), and it deserves the widest possible audience. I venture to hope that the author will be snapped up by a major publisher before long.

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ISBN not known
Tyger's Head Books, 2006
234pp, paperback
Retail price $15.69

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Review by Deborah Fisher