Harry Flashman: the unrepentant bully of Tom Brown's schooldays, now with a Victoria Cross, has three main talents - horsemanship, facility with foreign languages and fornication. A reluctant military hero, Flashman plays a key part in most of the defining military campaigns of the 19th century, despite trying his utmost to escape them all.
George MacDonald Fraser is best known for his Flashman series of historical novels, purportedly written by Harry Flashman, a fictional coward and bully originally created by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown's School Days. The novels are presented as "packets" of memoirs written by the nonagenarian Flashman, who looks back on his days as a hero of the British Army during the 19th century. The series begins with Flashman, and is notable for the accuracy of the historical settings and praise from critics. P.G. Wodehouse said of Flashman, “If ever there was a time when I felt that ‘watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet’ stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman.”
“We are Christian — as you are. We believe in progress, work, improvement — as you do. We believe in the sacred right of human liberty — as you do. In none of these things do the Manchus believe. That is why General Grant must go to Peking with an army, because Lord Elgin will not kowtow.“ - General Lee, Loyal Prince of the Taiping Rebellion
“I made a mental salute to the Taiping Rebellion. Like all of the revolutionary movements, and for that matter all of the governments, it was plainly designed to ensure the rulers an abundance of luxury, while convincing the ruled austerity was good for the soul. But barring Papists I couldn’t think of any regime that had the business so nicely in hand as this one.” - Colonel Harry Flashman, British Army
“There are many beautiful things in the world, mostly works of Nature - Man cannot make anything equal to these, but just once he came close. It was done by shaping nature with infinite patience as probably only Chinese craftsmen and artists could have done. In that vast parkland, stretching away to distant, hazy hills there was every beauty of nature and human architecture, blended together in a harmony of shape and color so perfect that it stopped your breath, and you could only sit and wonder.” - The Summer Palace before its destruction
“I’m not saying Elgin was wrong, it achieved what he had wanted without his having to break down a door or smash a window or light a match. That’s the great thing about policy, and why the world is such an infernal place. The man who makes the policy doesn’t have to carry it out and the man who carries it out isn’t responsible for the policy. Which is how our folks were tortured to death and the Summer Palace was burned. If that wasn’t the case precious little would ever get done.” - Flashman on the Summer Palace destruction
After distinguished service in the Afghan and Crimean wars, the Sepoy Mutiny, arecipient of a new Victoria Cross and a knighthood, Colonel Flashman is loafing in Hong Kong, waiting for his ship to sail home to Britain in 1860. While trying to seduce the wife of a Reverend he learns of their investment in the opium trade, now imperiled by a British invasion during the 2nd Opium War. Flash sees a lucrative opportunity in the offing and agrees to help smuggle 2000 chests of Patan poppy to Canton. The Taiping Rebellion had begun in the south and spread to the Yangtze River, luring Western mercenaries to fight.
It turns out Flash had been tricked into running guns for the Taiping, an army of religious revolutionaries. He encounters Frederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary, onboard the ship. When the British intercept the contraband Ward flees, leaving Flash to explain to Harry Parkes, British envoy of gunboat diplomacy, that he was acting as an undercover agent. Flash is unwillingly pressed into service and sent to Shanghai to join Lord Elgin on a punitive mission to Peking. The Imperial army is battling the Taiping forces 200 miles upriver, threatening the port. Flash is dispatched to Nanking to delay a siege of Shanghai.
The Taiping Rebellion was a long and bloody civil war for 14 years, beginning in 1850, that left up to thirty million dead. All 30,000 Manchurian soldiers, women and children were massacred when Nanking fell. Flash poses as a missionary bearing a message to Hong Xuiquan, the Heavenly King who styles himself as the brother of Jesus. He meets with the Loyal Prince, General Lee, commander of the Taiping army. Returning to warn of the impending attack on Shanghai, Flash rushes off to join Lord Elgin and General Grant. They are on their way to Peking to force the Qing Dynasty to accede to unequal treaties.
Flash is captured by smelly Mongol cavalry and is forced to kowtow but he escapes to join in the siege of the Taku Forts. 15,000 men march up the Peiho River towards the Forbidden City. Along the way the army is ambushed by Imperial forces but carry the day. Parkes and Flash are held hostage during a diplomatic parley with the Qing and spirited away to Peking. After brutal torture and harsh confinement, Flash begins a dangerous liaison with the Emperor’s favorite concubine, the future Empress Dowager Cixi. The British and French later loot and burn down the Summer Palace and Chinese Gordon topples the Taiping.
For all of Flashman’s jingoistic rhetoric, Fraser’s ‘Dragon’ is critical of imperialism and the characters who populated it. Flash’s prejudices are on prominent display and yet may not reflect the author’s. Although the book is a satire it could be offensive to some. The use of racial stereotypes and slurs is pervasive, unsurprising for the period described. Fraser fully exploits the cultural chauvinism of empire. There are only a few fictional characters portrayed, in the Reverend, his wife and Flashman. The rest are real life figures, drawn from the pages of history. Together they create an entertaining blend of fact and fiction.
As much as I love this series, I have to admit that by book 8, The Flashman Papers have settled down into a very comfortable formula: Flashy agrees to join an adventure in some exotic corner of the globe, the adventure turns out to be something other than what it first appeared (usually due to treachery), Flashy is taken prisoner, Flashy is assisted by some exotic woman with an enormous carnal appetite, Flashy falls out with the woman because one betrays the other, and finally Flashy is rescued by some other force and somehow comes out looking like a hero despite his best efforts to the contrary. In the previous installment, Flashman and the Redskins and in this one, this same formula is played out twice in the course of one novel.
But putting that aside, this is still a damn fine adventure story, and still shows the meticulous research and attention to detail that is a hallmark of the series. This time, Flashy is adventuring in China and gets swept up in the events of the Taiping Rebellion and the Second Opium War. As is often the case in these books, in its pages I learned that this particular episode was far nastier and weirder than I recall from taking Modern History in high school. And again, as usual, Fraser makes historical personalities leap to life. Particularly memorable and interesting to me were his characterisations of Frederick Townsend Ward, Hong Xiuquan, and Yehonala (the future Empress Dowager Cixi), which left me wanting to read more about their historical counterparts.
Flashy is still the embarrassing old uncle who happens to tell the best tall tales. Solid stuff.
The first half of the book dragged for me, it was the same story all over again, which is one of the joys of the series, but this time seemed pedantic. But man, that ending the last third of the book I couldn't set it down and was cheering for our unscrupulous hero!
Maybe not the best Flashman, but probably the one closest to my heart, content/history-wise, as it is the only story set in East Asia. My only complaint* here is that Fraser breaks this incident (if one of history's bloodiest wars can be called an "incident") into two almost separate stories**- Flashman among the crazy Taipings; and then Flashman among the evil Manchus - with little connective tissue, (indeed, it's left to Fraser's first [of three] appendices to revisit and wrap up the story of the Rebellion and its main characters, since once Flashy escapes their clutches they pretty much drop out of the story).
But as with all these books, this is Flashy's personal - and therefore, totally self-absorbed - story, not a true history book, and so focuses on his own wandering rather than the larger course of history. Still (and as usual), Fraser does a masterly job of plotting in order to position Flashman Zelig-like in each crucial event of the period. Also worth noting: since we - or at least I - tend to read these books mainly for the history and hilariously un-PC humor (and trust me, Flashman here is as racist, sexist and irredeemable as ever), it's easy to forget that Fraser is actually a fairly brilliant writer - not only in his excellent battle scenes, but also in the rare contemplative stretch, such as his emotional description of the burning of the Summer Palace.
I had hoped that by reading this, I'd get enough of the Taipings' story that I could avoid reading Jonathan Spence's God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, which has been sitting on my literal bookshelf pretty much since it came out. But instead, I'm actually more interesting now in reading Spence's book - just a fascinating period, and another great addition to the Flashman canon, (which IMHO is best enjoyed at the rate of about one a year). _________________________________
* Okay, I do have one other complaint - what the hell is up with the Flashman cover art? It's been a long time since I've been embarrassed to have someone see me reading a particular book, but this one's cover is so goofily cringy that when I wasn't reading it, I made sure it was face down wherever I left it.
** Not as literally as he did in Flashman's Lady, which was truly two books in one, telling the totally unrelated stories of James Brook in Borneo and the mad Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar.
The more I read the Flashman series the more impressed I get and the more I wonder at the fact that George MacDonald Fraser didn’t get a knighthood and an honorary degree for services to the understanding of English History during the Victorian Era. The man’s a genius! “Flashman and the Dragon” is Flashman’s China adventure covering the Taiping Rebellion (the greatest loss of life in any civil war and - I believe - second only to the Second World War) and the Second China (or Opium) War. The tale is hilarious at times but it is also quite enlightening about a moment in history I doubt many of us are aware of. The British Empire was created by men who really did have stiff upper lips and ramrod straight backs and we see their self-confidence and courage matched against a different, just as arrogant, culture. In a tale where the British and French are pulled (almost unwillingly) into a war in order to ensure Chinese adherence to existing trade agreements and where the Chinese actually do see themselves as the centre of the world where everyone (except themselves) is a barbarian only fit to be treated as a slave, casual heroism abounds. Through the maelstrom sails Flashman, bravely trying to avoid any situation in which he might put his life at risk and exploiting any misunderstanding that places him in a heroic light. We see him at his worst - and at his best... and we learn so much about this far-off time and place that still has resonance today. The whole book asks serious questions about what constitutes civilised behaviour and about the crimes committed by the powerful... and what might be a suitable means of punishment for those crimes. China still looks back at the form of punishment meted out. ... and the ending! How lovely - only Flashman!
In this entry, Flashy finds himself in Hong Kong (and already knowing Chinese, for some reason) — and quickly is tricked into running guns, meets Frederick Townsend Ward, is sent to parley with the Taipings, is captured by the Imperials, and is present at the burning of the Summer Palace. Not bad for not quite a year’s work, eh?
All the praise I showered on this book when I first read it, not to mention the praise for the other volumes recently, goes here as well. Erudite, bawdy, witty and hilarious, as always. Yes, Flashy’s skill at languages is starting to border on the superhuman — and there are at least two linguistic mistakes as far as my incredibly limited knowledge can tell (“he” and “it” are treated as different words, and “Prince (Y)I” is made to rhyme with “eye”) — but who cares? Another cracking good piece of historical fiction: hilarious, well-researched, compelling. An amazing book, as all the Flashman entries I’ve read have been. It's an erudite, bawdy adventure yarn, masterfully plotted. What’s really impressive is how Fraser puts a human face on historical figures and events, giving concubines, princes and rebels distinct, believable personalities and motives. And he adds Flashman as an historical mover and shaker, to boot. Great stuff.
This book follows the usual Flashman pattern: our anti Hero gets involved in some grand historical event without meaning to while only trying to get rich, stay safe, and get laid. This time around, its China, and a series of events which established British power over in that part of the world, and pretty well ended the Manchurian dynasty as it was.
Flashy this time is a bit less of a coward and miserable backstabbing jerk, mostly due to circumstances requiring him to act rather than run although he does plenty of that as well. He becomes involved with bandits, smuggling, spying, and so on, all the time with wit and humor. There's a bit more somber tone in this book than some of the others, though, and for me it was a slice of history I was not as aware of as others Fraser wrote about.
For the sake of 100% disclosure, I've read the entire Flashman series before, some of them two or three times, including this novel. However, I haven't visited anything by George Macdonald Fraser in the last decade (except Quartered Safe Out Here: A Harrowing Tale of World War II about five years ago). So reading Flashman and the Dragon was neither a new experience nor an unwelcome one. I haven't reviewed ANY of George MacDonald Fraser's work on Goodreads prior to this, however, and I think that is a need that must be addressed. I started reading Flashy when I was a relative sprout-- my father, of all people, recommended FLASHMAN (#1) to me when I was 12. That seems pretty startling in retrospect, considering how racy the novels were, but I didn't mind, I took to them like a duck to water, and have read them many times. Of the Flashman novels, I have often said Dragon was the best, followed by Charge, then Great Game. I just might have to revisit the series to prove my theory to myself. I initiated this read because I was finishing up an audiobook, needed a new one for a trip, and my eyes caught the narrator of the Flashman books, David Case-- master of dialects. If you're listening to a Flashman book, check the narrator, because Case makes the experience memorable. He has the perfect dry, drolling English upper class accent, and a host of other dialects, besides.
Onward, begad, we have a book to review here. If you have any experience with the written version of a GMF (Fraser) book, you already KNOW about the lavish care and meticulous work the late Mr. Fraser would put into the research and notes at the back of almost all of his novels, and particularly the Flashman series. For that reason, YOU SHOULD READ THE WRITTEN VERSION ALONG WITH LISTENING TO IT AS AN AUDIOBOOK. The notes (which are not narrated, alas) truly put every novel in a historical context and explain the relevance of some very important historical characters.
Historical characters are what the Flashy series is all about, of course. In THE DRAGON, we find Sir Harry, recently of Lucknow fame, heading East to the Orient in the wake of the "Mutiny Nonsense" (Indian Mutiny), as detailed in Flashman in the Great Game. For some unexplained reason, Flashman already has command of Mandarin and speaks Chinese like a native (to hear him tell it), yet the Flashman Papers do not record a prior visit. Some year I'm going to put all these unexplained gaps on a timeline, or look up if someone else has done it already. In any event, it's 1860, after the Great Game, before the Angel of the Lord and before Flashman's participation in the cataclysm of the American Civil War. Flashy is in China, trying to loaf off home to his beloved wife Elspeth (whom he gets positively sentimental about in spots here). Of course, he has a dalliance with a woman that ends up landing him in the middle of the TaiPing Rebellion, the worst Civil War in history (arguably) and before WWI, the most vicious and deadly war recorded. Flashman gets bamboozled into running opium, meets one of my favorite historical mercenaries, Mr. Frederick T. Ward, the creator of the Ever Victorious Army, and a host of other historical luminaries, including Hong Xiuquan (the leader of the Taiping rebellion, who fancied he was Jesus Christ's younger brother), the The Xianfeng Emperor, Yehonala (aka the Concubine Yi), and a host of fascinating, esoteric and eccentric Victorian military characters.
If you've read a Flashman novel, you'll know the outcome-- Flashman emerges from the Peking expedition of Lord Elgin with vast credit to his burgeoning reputation, having seduced, philandered, run from danger, whined and sniveled, and even fought-- yes, FOUGHT, his way to the finish line. This is a landmark in the series as it actually demonstrates that although Flashman is NOT courageous, when he has to, he'll put up a decent fight (in this case, with none other than the Mongolian General Sengge Rinchen, close to the climax of the story).
Of course, if you haven't read the novels, I apologize for a few gentle spoilers, and I envy what you are about to experience. If you love history, especially 19th century history, you are about to be hooked on the literary equivalent of black tar heroin. Go wikipedia the character FLASHMAN, from Tom Brown's Schooldays, and let it sink in for a bit. This is the grown up heroic (to the world's eyes) Flashman, no longer the bully from Eton. Sure, go ahead, start with the first one. You can thank me later, you have a lot of reading to do.
For those of us who know and enjoy this series, frankly, this was Fraser at the very height of his powers-- depicting a vigorous Flashman in his thirties. Old enough to be reflective and experienced, young enough to provide the reader with all the bawdy adventure that goes with a Flashman story. Aside from the almost unheard of "Flashman actually fights" scene, there is a very interesting segment in the novel where Fraser intersects a well known incident at the Taku Forts with Flashman's narrative, and Flashman is in sudden danger of losing his reputation. The sneaky and somewhat callous way he resolves this conundrum is a master stroke-- and it dispelled any notion I had that Flashy seemed to be going soft as he got older.
So that's that-- one of my favorite Flashy novels, now and back then. I shan't gush any more, governor. If you know Flashman, you've read this. If you haven't, you are in for a treat.
It was so much more offensive than I thought could ever be and you know what? I didn't hate it. I liked it better than I liked James Bond (Fraser wrote Goldfinger) and Flash is just such an idiot that you can't take anything he does seriously. It's like watching It's Always Sunny in Philedelphia, they're such bad people that you don't have to worry about feeling bad for them as the consequences of their actions chase them around like a Benny Hill sketch. And Flash cops it quite a bit.
I don't even know if you can really call him an anti hero because he isn't even saving the day, he's just getting in the way.
Anyway, I clutched my pearls but I secretly enjoyed it so here are my grudging three stars and I'll probably read another one and complain about it too.
Flashy is back and this time in China. What is fascinating about the Flashman series , repeating my thoughts from elsewhere, is that it uniquely combines a history lesson with absolute adventure, which is not something many writers can pull off. And GM Fraser does it again and again.
Here, Flashy appears in Hongkong, agrees to do some opium trading, which was all the rage at the time, for quick money, lands himself in the middle of the Taiping rebellion. Through Flashy's eyes, we see the absolute craziness of it all. The Taipings and their crazy ideology, the decadent lifestyle of the mandarins, the rampant corruption, the lustful harem of the emperor, the palace intrigues and wanton destruction of lives and properties.
The book details a crucial point in China's history where the imperial powers broke the emperor's god-like status and brought China to its heels. It was not a decisive moment, but it started the process which ended the monarchy some 60 years later.
The burning of the summer palace and the unnecessary deaths of so many Chinese just so that the princes can go on believe in their make-believe stories of the Chinese superiority make for some serious reading. But throw Flash in the midst with the royal concubine Yi (later empress Cixi) and the whole thing becomes a bawdy adventure.
Overall, whether you are a history buff or a adventure novel reader, this will satisfy both.
As many other reviewers also noticed, Macdonald Fraser has settled into a comfortable pattern when it comes to Flashman’s adventures. The thing is, it’s still a hugely enjoyable read! The language is spot on and brilliant, the research is impeccable, and Flashman is as dastadly as ever. As usual I get introduced to marvelously interesting historical characters, I get detailed knowledge of real historical events, and I get hours of entertainment.
Only one thing made me stop for a while. All of Flashman’s stories have bad guys (or gals), whom he will describe as “cruel” or “evil”. As these persons are either made up or died over a hundred years ago, I haven’t really thought about it. But in this book, the whole Chinese people is labeled as sadistic and cruel, they torture people, not to punish or to get information, but for fun. I don’t know, maybe I’m becoming a snowflake, but I didn’t like that generalization.
What I did like was the ethical discussion about the destruction of the Summer Palace. Very interesting, and food for thought!
You'd think "routine" is the last word you could apply to Flashman, but Dragon qualifies. One imagines Fraser running through a checklist: momentous historical event (China’s Taiping Rebellion), lots of eccentric, real-life personages (including Yankee freebooter Frederick Thompson Ward), exotic beauties and plenty of violence, torture and exotica. But somewhere between the 10th pirate skirmish, 60th description of the Summer Palace and Flashy's 800th coupling with Empress Cixi your mind starts to wander, especially with an aimless story. A tired, predictable entry with few surprises.
Once again the Flashman finds himself caught in the Victorian Imperial policies, this time in China. In the tail end Taiping Rebellion Harry Flashman is hoodwinked into the rebel camp by the lure of fast money in the opium trade. This was an audio listening experience, so it should be worth mentioning the greatness of the narrator, David Case, who is the perfect voice for the Flashman.
Everyone needs to read at least one (FLASHMAN is my recommendation for a single dip into the papers). But it's one long, riotous, bawdy, exciting and deeply educational novel. Trying to keep track of the Chinese geography that's covered here makes one's head spin and costs it a star--Fraser almost NEVER lets plotting get in the way of the fun. Still...it's wonderful like the rest!
I loved this book just as much as the others. The problem is the unsatisfactory ending. This book exists as the eighth of a series of twelve. Though the stories are not chronologically published, they still, in a sort of flashback series of events track the life and times of Harry Flashman. At the end of this novel, Flashman is drugged and kidnapped. But,... at no other point in any of the other Flashman novels is this mentioned, or what happened to him subsequently... We do know that Flashman has many more adventures post 1860 (when this book is set) and that safely back in England, he lives well into his 80s.
It's a great book, for Flashman fans. But, the inadequacy of the ending... Clearly MacDonald Fraser forgot about this episode when writing further editions... ruins the whole saga just a tad.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Another phenomenal Flashman romp, this time in China. A lot happens in this book, and for the first two thirds, history aside, I didn't know where this tale was going. However, it ends up being a most memorable story, and probably my favourite wrap up of events in any of Flashy's journals. The way the days after a war is over are described is really well done, and the description of the massive event that leads to a treaty is second to none that I've ever read. I'm sad that I've only got two more packets of Flashman journals to get through before I'm done with the series. While the language used makes all Flashman novels something that wouldn't be published today, they're all still the most fun reads I've ever had, and I recommend the series, this book in particular, to everyone; a good history lesson with a lot of wild humour thrown in.
This is the eighth of the twelve books about mid-nineteenth-century British military conquests. Many of the historically important events and battles that helped form the British empire are recounted throughout the series by their principal character, Harry Flashman, who was present at them all. So, for example, if you've always wanted to know what the charge of the light brigade refers to, just find the correct volume and have a good read. (It's number 4 in the series.)
The plots are too silly to describe, although they may make you laugh out loud. The sugar that makes the historical medicine so easy to take is the (arrested) development of Flashman as a character. His military honors, won with each passing campaign, are completely misplaced. For he is a coward and a womanizer, running from various villains as he turns up in unlikely places, rogering the ladies and reluctantly pretending to be a hero. He always ends up with some credit, and a ticket back home. He is pre-politically correct. In fact, it never crosses, his mind (or the author's) to re-position his recounting of the tales for modern sensibilities, one of the joys of the series. Both his fellow British soldiers and the cultures they conquer are rife with prejudices, brutality and nastiness. The women may be even worse. But Flashman is aware of all that, and self-aware as he describes his own interests. He only wants to save his skin and share it with every woman who will have him.
The conceit of the books are that Flashman's papers have been found in 1966, and lightly edited "to correct spelling mistakes" and "add footnotes" before publication. These footnotes compare various historical sources to Flashman's descriptions of events, which are, for the most part, not-surprisingly, historically accurate. Flashman, who has a gift for languages, among other things, manages to get himself into the thick of the non-stop action. Spend a Sunday afternoon reading one of these and you will not only laugh, you will be unable to put it down as you learn quite a bit of history, too.
The eighth volume takes place in China and covers the Taiping Rebellion and Pekin Expedition of 1860, which was the beginning of the end for the Mandarin Empire. We meet Lord Elgin, son of the one who took the marbles from Greece, as he leads an allied expedition of European powers to treaty with the Chinese and open up China to trade. The climax of this volume (as a story-there are lots of others, but never mind) is Elgin's decision to burn the Summer Palace of the Emperor as revenge for torturing several British soldiers to death. In those days of absolute, autocratic, divine rulers, the Summer Palace occupied an area of eight miles by ten miles, or about 50,000 acres, every square inch of which was architected and groomed to perfection. Over 200 buildings and priceless works of art were destroyed, along with gardens and forests. His contemporaries accused Elgin of barbarism and worse, but this story puts all that in context. Some of the action of the novel occurs in the Summer Palace, as well as in the Forbidden City itself. We have first-hand accounts of what life was like as Imperial China went into eclipse.
Originally published on my blog here in October 1999.
The eighth Flashman novel follows on from the sixth, and deals with the complex situation in China in 1860. In the middle of a civil war which still amounts to one of the most bloodthirsty campaigns in military history (the Taiping Rebellion - only the Second World War had more casualties), the British undertook a major military expedition to escort Lord Elgin to Beijing (then known as Pekin) in safety, there to force the Chinese Emperor to ratify the treaty which ended the Opium Wars. The damage done to Manchu superiority by this expedition, involving thousands of British and French soldiers and leading to much Chinese Imperial loss of face, ranks as one of the most important events in human history, for it sowed the seeds of the eventual downfall of the empire.
The Flashman series is written around the premise that he must be part of every important military action of the mid-nineteenth century and meet every important person. It is inconceivable, therefore, for him not to turn up at this expedition. The way Fraser gets him involved this time is that he accepts a job that he expects will be a doddle, escorting a cargo of opium into China. (His skill with languages means that he can deal with the Chinese authorities.) But he discovers that his cargo is actually far more dangerous - guns being run to supply the Taiping.
Since the previous instalment of the Flashman papers, as Fraser calls them, he seems a rather mellower character. As time goes on, he gets more comfortable to read about, less likely to do something particularly unpleasant. Most of the unpleasantness is concentrated in the barbaric (to European eyes) disregard for death and suffering - and in fact positive joy in causing them - which characterised the Chinese military (both Imperial and Taiping) at this time.
something of a mixed read in this, the eighth outing of our dastardly hero.
Oh, don't get me wrong the story contains the usual breathless adventures and sexcapades we've come to expect from Flashy. GMF's historical research is, as ever, top-notch and the humour never lets up (there is a sword fight at the end that Harry narrates whilst also taking part in that had me fairly slapping my thigh) but at the same time I couldn't shake the feeling the author was painting by numbers.
The locations might be new but at its heart this adventure follows the same formula we've read in quite a few of the previous books: Flashy is all set to go home; does something rash on his last night; gets sent up country; is imprisoned, almost killed; seduces the most beautiful woman within 500 miles and finally emerges the hero.
Entertaining but nonetheless, just a little bit lazy
This chapter in Flashy's life revolves around the second opium war, and as usual he finds himself in hot water because he can't keep away from women. But that's OK, it's why we love the rascal! This follows GMF's very entertaining formula of a supposed coward who's actually no more so than any of us, who seems to be on hand at history's momentous occasions, and gives a very funny, very un-PC opinion on things, as well as historical figures. A very good story, this one, but only three stars this time as it was perhaps a little too descriptive at times, especially of the wonders of the summer palace, and the riches taken away there. Sorry if I'm being picky, but GMF himself has set the bar very high with these stories, and I will still read this one again.
Despite being one of the more taut and focused Flashman adventures, Flashman and the Dragon took a little while to win me over, but by the end I found it as enchanting as any I have read. There's no point going over what I've already said ad nauseam in my other reviews; this eighth book in the series remains as thrilling an adventure, rip-roaring a comedy, rich a story and accurate a history as any of the previous seven. And Flashman is still an absolutely devious scoundrel and magnificent bastard, as Irish Nolan finds out to his cost.
Of these fine qualities, I feel Fraser's historical research warrants the greatest praise. With the possible exception of Flashman and the Great Game, which taught me more about the Indian Mutiny than any history book ever could, Flashman and the Dragon is the most illuminating book of the series, bringing to the fore the fascinating events of the Taiping Rebellion. What is doubly valuable about the Flashman books as historical fiction is that they cover less well-known, yet still important, events in history. I knew only a little about the Taiping Rebellion before reading Dragon, yet now I feel I could give a good stab at bluffing my way through Mastermind with it as my chosen topic. Towards the end of the book, there's even an eloquent historical analysis of the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace which manages to be extremely informative and melancholy whilst never losing the general rhythm and tone of the story. By this point, I had the sense that I'd been reading something truly special, even by Fraser's lofty standards.
I think perhaps the reason it took me longer to warm to Dragon's charms was because, in the period Fraser is describing, China was like another planet completely. Consequently, Fraser delights in describing all the various wonders of Imperial China, which slows the pace down a tad and draws attention away from the scoundrel acts of Flashman himself. This is not a criticism as such, for the reader delights in reading it (there are some truly beautiful passages of prose) and we get a real sense of the otherworldly nature of the country as it was in 1860. Elsewhere, I found that the humour was often subtler than in previous instalments; for me, the heartiest chuckles came from little snarky asides in the dialogue rather than the more overt shamelessness of Flash's actions.
Overall, Flashman is just an excellent companion; I'd say without a doubt his voice, as wrought by Fraser, is the finest example of first-person prosing there is. It is conversational and amiable, making it accessible, yet allows for the sort of waxing lyrical I allude to above without any of it seeming out of place. I remain, as ever, truly staggered by Fraser's writing and lament that his books are not read more widely. If I had my way, there'd be a permanent statue of Flashman on the Fourth Plinth of Trafalgar Square, with a bevy of lovingly-sculpted stone beauties writhing at his feet.
This time it’s China and we readers are taken for a walk through the historic roads of Nanking, Peking, Shanghai and many other cities and places of historical China. We took a peek at the world of Taiping, The Kingdom of Heavenly Peace, meeting big Lords like Hung Hsiu-Chuan, Loyal Prince Li, and their rank and files. Again we come face to face with Western historical characters like Lord Elgin, James Hope Grant, Frederick Townsend Ward portrayed in most intricate manner. The Mancoo army and their leaders are somewhat blandly portrayed. Then off course the ladies of the Dragon the Great Yehonala, the imperial concubine, the future Empress of China. Of her charms Flashman had but one expression “….one of three women he ever felt more than lust for (excluding Elspeth), the other two being Lola Montez and Rani Lakshmi Bai”, some compliment from a rogue like Flashman. I simply enjoyed this tryst. It’s more Flasman like. Off course I can’t forget the Szu-Zhan the giant lady bandit. She ended it with a truly romantic yet touching punch line, "She told me to say … that she would always be waiting." I must admit I was touched. Top it all it was the description of the Summer Palace. It was simply mesmerizing, in the language of Flashman “…..But you see, I can't describe how one delicate shade of colour blends into another, and both into a third which is not a colour at all, but a radiance; I can't show you how the curve of a temple roof harmonises with the branches that frame it, or with the landscape about it; I can't make you see the grace of a slender path winding serpentine among the islands of a lake that is itself a soft mirror bordered by ever-changing reflections; I can't say why the ripple of water beneath the prow of a slow-gliding pleasure barge seems to have been designed to complement the shape of barge and lake and lily-pad, and to have been rippling since Time began”. My imagination takes a break. In words of great Flashman “….never talk to me about Art or Beauty or Good Taste or Style, because I've seen the bloody elephant.”
More from the Flashman stable. We know what to expect by now. An improbable appearance in an unusual part of the world, a sequence of mishaps and potential dangers, a dalliance with one or more females, extreme adversity and then improbable rescue. Despite Flashman being a cliche of himself, I really enjoyed the tale. I can guess what it contains, and it doesn't disappoint.
I find these books to be very well researched. The payoff for this volume is an account of part of the Taiping Rebellion, something of which I know next to nothing. This says more about the gap in my education than anything else. The rebellion caused more death than the First World War, it lasted for decades, and it has a footprint that is still felt today.
Perhaps that's the point of reading these books? They provide a good adventure yarn, they're well written and well argued, but you end up learning something from them as well. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the research, but it does seem fairly authoritative to me. You have to lay aside the glorification of the Empire and the attitudes that underlie it, but if you can do that, you will then enjoy the story for what it is - and old-fashioned adventure from the family embarrassment.
Une fois de plus, ce sont les femmes qui alternativement perdent et sauvent le colonel Flashman. De Hong-Kong à Pékin en passant par Nankin et Shanghai, il n’est pas de tout repos de traverser la Chine en 1860 alors que la révolte des Taï-Pings fait rage et que les Mandchous s’accrochent à leur trône. Toujours aux premières loges, Sir Harry garde le détachement du cynique pour camper cette période cruciale de l’histoire chinoise, qui voit s’effondrer l’illusion de la domination universelle de l’Empereur. Effondrement dont on voit encore les contrecoups aujourd’hui avec la réaffirmation brutale de la puissance chinoise sous l’impulsion de XI Jinping. Publié en 1985 ce roman d’aventures ne pouvait évidemment pas anticiper cela, mais il n’en reste pas moins qu’on y trouve des échos d’une actualité troublante.