The Boy Colonel by John J. Horn: Historical fiction with a twist
Overall rating: 8/10
Quality of writing: 7.5/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): moderate
Age level: 12 and up
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The Boy Colonel is a historical fiction novel about exactly that: a teenage colonel in the British army, commanding a crack regiment in 1836 Siberia. Going by the name “Nobody,” he is perhaps the most intriguing part of the book’s premise (and not to worry, the mystery of his age and name is revealed by the end of the book). Alongside his good friend and fellow soldier Edmund (and the other personable members of the 42nd Regiment, including O’Malley, a comical Irishman, and Jacques, an overly-civilized Frenchman) he battles Russian Cossacks, travels to the British royal court in London, and ultimately faces a villainous English noble and a treacherous general on a Pacific island in a dramatic showdown.
This book is high on action, with battle scenes, betrayals, and dramatic chases spread throughout its pages—although we also get a healthy dose of romance and court intrigue in the middle section. The tone varies from serious to humorous and is overall a bit lighter than you might expect for a war story, but it still leaves room for some very meaningful discussion of allegiance and Christian values (the back cover of the book explains that Colonel Nobody must “decide which sovereign is greater—the king of England or the God of the Bible”). Overall, this is a solid read, especially for younger fans of historical fiction.
This book’s plot is divided into three major sections: an initial “war story” section set in Siberia, in which Nobody leads several dramatic battles against the Russians; a middle “court story” section in which Nobody and several of his men are sent back to England with dispatches after he stands up to his villainous adversary (and commanding officer), General Tremont; and finally a “nautical story” section taking place on a Pacific island after Nobody leaves Siberia, due to his belief that the war he is fighting in is no longer a just one. All three sections are relatively fast-paced, humorous at points, and engaging (particularly the first and last), and both banter and action/fighting scenes occur rather frequently throughout.
However, the plot as a whole (and especially some of its particular developments) may seem a bit forced for older readers—for example, Nobody (unintentionally) picks up a love interest, Lady Liana Halmond, in London through a series of somewhat-believable court machinations involving King William IV, a bet placed by the dastardly nobleman Banastre Bronner, and the transfer of a set of estates. Similarly, the story’s transition from Siberia, to London, to the Pacific—though undeniably engaging—may strike some readers as slightly unusual or unbelievable. On the whole, then, I would say that the plot of this book largely serves the action, not so much the other way round—not to the point of creating plot holes, certainly, but it’s nevertheless something to be aware of. (7.5/10)
Characterization is one of this book’s particular strengths—as I mentioned above, there’s plenty of humor, which largely arises from the bantering, competitive dynamic between the forthright, decidedly Irish O’Malley, and the comically “civilized” French Jacques. Other humorous characters include the Preston twins, who finish each other’s sentences with rhyming words, as well as the very American “Yankee” soldier Dilworth. While their qualities and dialogue can verge on caricature at times, they still manage to exemplify bravery and loyalty in their more serious moments, making them not an entirely one-dimensional cast. (The female characters—Liana and her maid Elyssa—are unfortunately a little underdeveloped, though, making this book potentially less enjoyable for female readers.)
Similarly, the villains—the treacherous General Tremont and Banastre Bronner—are also a bit caricatured, appearing pretty uniformly selfish and antagonistic as characters, in some cases without too much background motivation (at least that we see). However, we do get a very impressive image of Colonel Nobody contrasted against such villainy: he is principled and has great integrity, even to the extent of self-sacrifice to maintain his Christian values. Nobody exhibits a moderate amount of character growth over the course of the book as he matures in his relationship with Liana, moving from a sort of endearing awkwardness (which nicely balances his military demeanor) to a more determined and protecting role by the end—although his underlying principles do stay nearly constant throughout, rather than developing or changing. Overall, this book has an excellent balance of humorous and exemplary characters, earning it a 9/10 rating in this category.
The Boy Colonel is only moderately lengthy (344 pages in my edition), and its action and dialogue are relatively straightforward throughout. The story’s diction is readable without being simplistic, and although we do get a little slightly oblique “courtly language” with certain characters introduced in the middle and final sections, there’s no particularly obscure dialogue. (3.5/10)
Quality of writing
Author John Horn’s writing is solid and readable in this book, although not especially remarkable. In style, it's in some ways comparable to British authors like G. A. Henty or R. M. Ballantyne—slightly old-fashioned compared to modern usage (but not massively so), tending towards the romanticization of bravery and combat (primarily involving male protagonists), and broadly British-centric (although there are also “token” characters from Ireland, France, Russia, and the United States on the protagonists’ side in this book). The descriptions of action and dialogue in The Boy Colonel are intentionally somewhat dramatic, with frequent confrontations, threats, chases, sword or gun fights, and in many cases even pitched battles (complete with horseback charges and battle cries). However, this dramatic character is more of a virtue than a flaw, since the book largely revolves around such action.
It’s also worth noting that this book references Christian values at many points, most often in connection with Nobody’s, Liana’s, and Edmund’s beliefs, doing a very consistent (if not subtle) job of communicating the protagonists’ faith. Nobody himself is particularly notable for this, displaying an unwavering commitment to acting consistently with his principles at all times, and ultimately resigning his commission in the army because he believes the war he had been fighting is unjust. (7.5/10)
The Boy Colonel is probably most distinctive in terms of potentially concerning content for its violence—it’s not gratuitous, but the book is essentially a war story, meaning that there are plenty of battles. Specific descriptions of injuries occur often— blood gushes, skulls are cleaved by swords, and wounds gape. We see one young soldier die from a gunshot wound, and later in the book, several of the antagonists are badly burned (with “screams of agony” and “the horrible stench of roasting flesh”). Other than that, though, the remaining concerns are minor: there’s minimal problematic language (one character describes a woman as a “hussy” at one point, and the term “Negro” is used once), a few characters occasionally get drunk, and there’s really no concerning sexual content.
This book is a relatively easy read, stylistically speaking, but because of its level of violence, I’ve chosen to recommend it for ages 12 and up. This is a particularly good case of parental (or individual readers’) discretion, however—depending on taste and maturity, that age range could easily be adjusted up or down.