Although the glorification of war for young readers has mostly been left to graphic comic books in the last 40 years, it is still a rarity to find a novel published in the UK about a conflict which our side lost. So it is good to discover in Forge a well-researched and absorbing novel about the American War of Independence. Readers may have already met the young escaped slaves, Isabel and Curzon, in the Carnegie short-listed Chains. There the focus was chiefly upon Isabel, but now we follow the adventures of 15-year-old Curzon, on the run and caught between the lines of skirmishing troops. Within a page or two, he’s involved in a bloody redcoat death and saved the life of Ebenezer, a rebel lad who becomes his firm friend. Willy-nilly, he finds himself enlisted in the Sixteenth Massachusetts Regiment.
Much of the story records the bitter winter of 1777/8 which the Army spends encamped at Valley Forge. There is nothing glamorous about Curzon’s account of life as the only black soldier in a small company of men enduring extreme conditions. Finding the next meal or a pair of boots to replace the rags covering frozen feet are matters of life or death. Any Sharpe fan would be satisfied by the details of soldiering on among an array of thoroughgoing villains, deceivers, and honest mates. There is an extra edge of danger for Curzon as an escaped slave, especially when he runs into his devious old master; and even his newfound friends have, unsurprisingly in that period, complicated racial attitudes. Strands of the plot are carried through from Chains, and eventually the forthright Isabel crosses Curzon’s path once more. The language suggests another time (‘conversating’, ‘tarried’, ‘lackbrains’), yet remains readily accessible; and the chapters are headed by quotations from diaries, journals and letters, lending authenticity to the narrative. The tale ends with Isabel (disguised in breeches) and Curzon on the run again, setting things up nicely for the next instalment in the forthcoming Ashes.