The Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser has been long, and rightfully, praised. With a callow, swaggering, lying, lecherous protagonist, it should be a hard sell to gain the reader’s sympathies. Yet somehow, Fraser pulls it off. A big part of it is the feeling of escape and adventure that is dripping from every page in this series. Fraser is writing about the golden age of conquest and if you are not a fan of British (and other nation’s) imperialism, I suspect you might still enjoy this series because the protagonist, Harry Flashman, refuses to sugarcoat anything.
Flashman owns up to his own lack of morals and scruples so bald-facedly, it is hard to accuse him. After all, he’s admitting he’s a ‘rotter’ right up front. And he’s also telling the truth, fearlessly, about some of the most fascinating battles and political movements of a eventful century. This also means that when Flashman shows the genuine heroes of that age, you feel the truth of that, as well. And this was a time of adventure that fiction can hardly equal. A time when ‘Chinese’ Gordon walked into China with little more than swagger stick, professional military training and his own unshakable self-confidence yet walked out with English and Chinese titles of nobility. Or James Brooke, the first White Raja of Borneo.
It’s this straightforward telling of history that’s the real hook. The ‘stranger than fiction’ is given a veneer of fiction by the insertion of Flashman and portrayed to us. Things weren’t more black and white back then, but the people believed they were and the Flashman books show both sides of that.
The heroes and the fools are both revealed to us and it spurs a desire to read about, learn and revel in those wilder days.
A perfect example of this is the book I just finished, Flashman and the Mountain of Light. This book picks up immediately after the events of Flashman’s Lady and I do recommend reading that first. Though you can get away with just reading the first book, (Flashman) and going directly into this instead. The Mountain of Light refers to a huge diamond taken by the British as spoils of conquest over the Punjab region of India. And that is the main thrust of the story, the first Sikh war of 1845.
Honestly, the story is just fascinating, starting with the characters: an alcoholic nymphomaniac queen who is nonetheless rather cunning, scheming blackguard serving the British Political Service, a child king, bull-headed British generals (in both senses of the word) and last but not least, the lecherous cowardly Flashman. All of these people feel real. As a writer, I was amazed. Everyone has flaws and strengths and their own motivations, clearly defined by the benefit of authorial hindsight and added footnotes by the author. This is history as narrative, it doesn’t need to be dramatized because it is drama. These were real people, real problems with all the messiness and mixed motivations that real people and real history has.
I’ve picked up a number of good autobiographies from the footnotes of these novel and that’s the real salute to Fraser, he makes me want to know more about the past. The author shows the world as it was and it might be ugly sometimes but it is also enthralling.
Highly recommended, the whole series and this book in particular.
I also strongly suggest reading the books be read in chronological, not published, order. See Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flashman_Papers