Book Review: Flashman in the Great Game, by George MacDonald Fraser
Technically, I started reading this book in 2014, but I finished it just yesterday, so I’m counting it as the first book I read in 2015. Not like there are really set rules to this kind of thing, anyway.
Flashman in the Great Game is a book I’ve read some years before, actually. I stumbled across my old copy while I was digging through some old bookshelves- and, remembering how I enjoyed the series (and having only vague memories of reading it some 8 or so years ago), I figured I’d come back to it. I’m happy to say the book certainly holds up to a second reading, though there was a lot of stuff I noticed on this read that I didn’t (or had at least forgotten) the first time around.
Flashman in the Great Game is the fifth in the Flashman series. The Flashman Papers (which I’ve mentioned in passing before) center around the exploits of the titular Sir Harry Paget Flashman, V.C.
Harry Flashman is a horrible person; he’s a bully, a womanizer, a racist, and a coward (among other things). All of this combines to make a wonderfully entertaining character. The books are presented as Flashman’s memoirs, in which he freely admits to what a bastard he is as he recounts his various misadventures.
Each Flashman book centers around one particular 19th century military campaign or another. If you’ve ever heard of any given military engagement of the 1800’s, Flashman was probably there: The charge of the Light Brigade, Little Bighorn, Roarke’s Drift, and a dozen more battles you’ve probably never heard of. At heart, Flashman just wants to be left alone to get drunk and gamble and chase women, but his ridiculous luck gets him into (and out of) all these terrible situatations. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, as Flashman earns an over-inflated reputation as a military hero, which gets him sent someplace even worse.
One of the fun things about the Flashman novels is how thoroughly Fraser has done his research; each book has a little appendix of footnotes at the back, citing various first and secondhand sources about whatever conflict Flashy’s blundering through. In fact, the books were so well researched that several book reviews of the first Flashman novel mistook it as an actual first-hand account. The footnotes in the back are particularly valuable if you’re not familiar with whatever conflict and era Fraser’s writing about. I’m really not an expert on 19th century British Generals, because this blog isn’t called Dial L for London.
Which brings us to Flashman in the Great Game, in which Flashy is sent to India on the eve of the Sepoy Mutiny. Go look it up on Wikipedia if you haven’t heard of it. Spoiler alert: it ends badly. What follows is a typical Flashman adventure. Flashman dons various disguises and weaves his way in and out of various historical events, meeting various historical personages, lusting after various femme fatales, and running away from a long list of people trying to kill him.
It’s been awhile since I’ve read a Flashman novel, so I noticed a couple of things on this re-read that I didn’t my first time around. For one, I’d read the books out of order a couple of years ago- but now, having read them all, I was able to pick up on a couple of recurring characters that I didn’t notice the first time around. Still, I wouldn’t recommend the novel as the first one to read in the series to any interested.
Another thing that struck me on the re-read is that…well, comedic telling aside, Flashman and the Great Game is really a grim book. For one, Harry’s a terrible racist, firmly convinced in the superiority of the White Man. It’s perfectly in character for a 19th century British Officer, but Harry is still pretty appalling to a modern sensibility. This said, Fraser does devote time to showing the Indian perspective in parts (usually while Flashman is disguised as a native soldier), showing some of the reasons why the Sepoy Mutiny arose.
As General Sherman (someone Flashman probably met at some point) said, “war is hell.” Flashman and the Great Game certainly shows this adage to be true, depicting cruelties and massacres on both sides of the war. Again, I was a little thrown off on my re-read, as I’d mostly remembered the series more for rollicking adventure rather than the accounts of massacres and vigilantism. Then again, when you’re dealing with themes like imperialism and war, it’s not exactly easy to make things ‘light,’ either.
All and all, I enjoyed Flashman and the Great Game, though I wouldn’t list it as my favorite of the Flashman Papers. Fraser’s style is still a joy to read, however, and I’d heartily recommend his other work- Royal Flash, a sendup of The Prisoner of Zenda, might be a good place to start. Heck, they even made a movie out of it in the 70’s. Gorgeous period piece. If I can find a proper beer to pair with it, I might even review it over at A Brew to A Kill sometime.
Unfortunately, Royal Flash isn’t available to stream on Netflix or anything, but at least the trailer’s on YouTube. Malcolm MacDowell’s in it!