It’s for these two reasons that I’ve made an exception to my usual rule not to review contemporary books. John J Horn’s two adventure novels The Boy Colonel and Brothers at Arms have just been published by Vision Forum, and from the description I knew they would be thrilling tales of adventure in the style of Henty, Haggard, and Ballantyne, with exactly the kind of Christian worldview and unabashed drama that I love so much in vintage novels.
One of the big questions I had, however, was just how good these books would be as far as plot and writing style goes. The answer surprised me.
The 42nd Mounted Infantry is a crack regiment with the unlikeliest colonel in the British Army. No one knows exactly how old he is, what his name is, or who his parents are. But, though he’s only a boy, “Nobody”—as everyone calls him—is his regiment’s secret weapon, a brilliant strategist whose men would follow him anywhere.
The story follows Nobody’s adventures during a fictional 1837 war in Siberia (possibly inspired by the real-life Crimean War), together with his best friend the boy lieutenant Edmund, their rag-tag band of loyal followers, the Times correspondent covering the war, and the young lady to whom Nobody unexpectedly becomes engaged. With his origins shrouded in secret, an implacable enemy trying to have him killed, and a wicked young lord trying to steal his betrothed, Nobody must face the challenge of living the manly Christian life, whether it’s in the snowy trenches of Siberia, the glittering ballrooms of London, or the enemy-infested Pacific seas!
By far the best aspect of this book was the themes; nothing profound or life-changing, but just good solid diet for boys—be brave, protect women, respect authority, find answers in the Bible. The characterisation could have used improvement, but shows real potential in the easygoing relationship between Nobody and Edmund, and the flawed but sympathetic Somerset and Hayes.
Perhaps the most flawed aspects of the book came in the writing style and plotting. The author had difficulty hitting the right notes, especially in quieter, more introspective scenes, while the handling of the themes was a little laboured. Meanwhile the plot was not very tightly woven, with many unrelated elements.
However, when there were big dramatic moments for the author to get his teeth into, both plotting and writing shone. Good writing style pulled off a number of the best moments in the book, especially an unexpected rescue early on. Nothing reconciled me to the lacklustre heroine like the way she dealt with her unwanted suitor at the climax, while during action scenes, the writing style took on the best pulpy boys’-own manner.
In the end, this book showed more potential than it achieved. It’s the kind of book I’d recommend mainly as reading fodder for the kind of children who’ll read anything and desperately need something edifying to keep them occupied. And then I went on to read the second book, and…
…it was brilliant.
Identical twins Lawrence and Chester Stoning have been brought up by an absent-minded father and socialite mother. Or rather, Lawrence has been brought up carefully (complete with an extensive, no-frills philosophical, historical, scientific, and medical education) while Chester has been left to follow his heart into an action-packed training in all the martial arts and ripping yarns of chivalry and adventure. Each brother disdains the other’s gifts, but when Chester runs away from home Lawrence dutifully follows to keep him safe. Before they know it, they’ve been hired to protect a Spanish merchant and his beautiful ward Pacarina, who guards a deadly secret locked in the heart of the Peruvian jungle. With terrible danger threatening from greedy treasure-hunters and warlike natives, will Lawrence and Chester look past their differences, work together, and get home alive?
This book was absolutely it. Reading it brought back the twelve-year-old zest of books read under the covers late at night.
One or two things struck a false note--which I mention only to demonstrate how minor they are. A couple of words were used in odd ways. I’m not sure Western novels existed in the 1830s. The Protestants-vs-Romanists thread of the plot clanged a little, but maybe I'm just used to a high grade of Roman Catholics. Still this was treated with a light hand and did not detract from my enjoyment of the story at all. Finally I was sorry the author missed a perfectly good chance to get back at that despicable little heathen, Edward Gibbon, by having the narrator heave his copy of The Decline and Fall into a bog, but I can forgive that because it probably got burned or pinched by bloodthirsty natives or something.
Otherwise, this book was just great. It was not merely a competent adventure story; it was an outstanding adventure story.
The characters were excellent. I loved how both the brothers of the title had their own strengths and weaknesses. At first I thought the author might be putting down one or other of the brothers—perhaps Lawrence, for being so bad at violence, or perhaps Chester, for liking knights and damsels better than Sober Non-Fiction. But both these elements were skillfully used to add strength and sympathy to the characters. I found it really unusual and piquant that Lawrence—our narrator—was so bad at warfare for the hero of an action-adventure story. Now of course there are plenty of books out there in the postmodern smog that murble on about how violence is wrong and you must never do it and hurrah for sensitive heroes whose delicate souls get tragically crushed by the patriarchal violence of traditional Western society, blech. But in this book—an action-adventure book, no less—the author effortlessly balances his brains-and-brawn heroes and themes, showing the good and the bad in both of them. I particularly appreciated an episode in which an impetuous use of violence has terrible consequences. When people died in this book—and the author successfully convinced me that a main character was dying at one point, which is very difficult to do to a seasoned reader like me!—it felt real, and much more serious than is usual in books of this stripe.
I also loved the smashing heroine. Capable, sensible, and brave, it’s easy to believe that Pacarina would be entrusted with a deadly secret. She seems like a real person who it’d be fun to know, a cut above most adventure-story heroines. Likewise, the villains and supporting characters were mostly three-dimensional and believable.
The plot was tightly-woven with meticulous foreshadowing and plenty of the firearms in which Mr Anton Chekhov specialised. I can’t think of any useless episodes or plot points. I was also able to figure out who the villains were, but only just before they tore off their whiskers, which shows good plotting.
The themes, of course, were impeccable: good, solid truths that gladden the heart, mainly revolving around what it means to be a Christian gentleman. The writing style showed immense improvement on The Boy Colonel, communicating its message with a deft touch that allowed the story to illustrate the themes. The melodrama was of the very finest quality, oozing desperate last stands and cliffhangers and terrible moral choices. Meanwhile the book was full of crackling dry wit which frequently had me laughing out loud. And numerous fun literary references, including a couple to my very favourite Shakespeare play.
To conclude, this book is a gem worthy to stand alongside Winning His Spurs, The Coral Island, The Black Arrow and The Last of the Mohicans—even to outshine some of them. I recommend it to everyone who enjoys those books, and I shall be following Mr Horn’s writing career with considerable interest.
I would like to thank Vision Forum for their generosity in sending me these books to review. The Men of Grit series is available on their website.