In a market where formulaic fiction is churned out an ever-increasing pace, The Last Roundhead has a rare distinction indeed – it is something truly different, a genre-bending gem that mixes laughter with melancholy, substance with frivolity, and vulgarity with tragedy.
Written by the supremely talented Jemahl Evans, it’s set during the English Civil War and is best described as a historical adventure-comedy, though such a description doesn’t really do its many facets justice. The story follows the fictional rogue Blandford Candy, who serves as a scout and spy for the Parliamentarians. Evans employs the same faux memoir style as George MacDonald Fraser did with his Flashman series, and it’s clear that Blandford Candy – the rascal that he is – takes some inspiration from the eponymous protagonist of Fraser’s work. But while Candy is a worthy successor to Flashman, it would be a mistake to see the story exclusively through this lens. The Last Roundhead has its own unique style and substance.
First, there’s the history. For a story that presents itself as a comedy, the attention to historical detail is striking. The political machinations and military engagements of the Civil War are explored in detail throughout the story (and in the extensive endnotes), but it’s the way the history runs through every page, from the tiny details of life during that period to the authentic diction, that makes the novel feel so real.
What stood out for me the most, though, was the depth of the characters and themes in the story. The Last Roundhead is certainly written to entertain – it had me laughing out loud on several occasions – and it has a tendency towards vulgarity and violence, but underneath the hearty laughs and the provocative language lies a novel with real substance. The older Candy’s melancholic recollections of his youth and reflections on what he’s lost can’t fail to tug on the heartstrings of anyone who’s ever felt loss or regret, while the loneliness of his status as the ‘last Roundhead’ left alive speaks to the limitations of memory and legacy. Meanwhile, the younger Candy’s haunting pain upon losing his friends, together with the violent impulses that grip him as he’s sucked into the horror of war, provide strikingly human moments and lay bare the traumatic and life-changing effects of conflict. For all its humour, this is a novel with something to say.
That’s not to say the story gets lost in its own thoughtfulness. There’s plenty of action and excitement. The Battle of Edgehill is a particular highlight in the first half, and there are many more skirmishes and brushes with death waiting for Candy in the second.
If you enjoy action or a good adventure, this is a story for you. If you enjoy comedy, this is a story for you. If you love history, this is a story for you. And if you’re looking for something a bit different – a story that’s fearlessly written and isn’t afraid to defy genre expectations – this is most definitely for you. Much recommended.