Book Review: George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman at the Charge

Books are kind of like food.

Instead of ‘styles’ like Italian or Chinese, you’ve got genres like mystery or romance. And, like food, some books are better for you than others. A lot of the cheap sci-fi paperbacks are more or less the equivalent of greasy fast food– cheap and fun, but probably not something you should be consuming exclusively. Other books are like health food– they’re ostensibly ‘good’ for you, but ultimately dry and unfulfilling. (I don’t have a high opinion of ‘literary’ fiction, if you haven’t noticed).

But sometimes, you luck out and stumble across something that’s ‘good’ for you, but also turns out to be delicious– which brings us to George MacDonald Fraser.

Fraser’s one of my favorite authors, and his Flashman novels are my favorite series of his. I’ve actually read all the Flashman novels before– but they’re fun enough to go back to every now and again. Coincidentally, the last Flashman novel I read (and reviewed) was the one that directly comes AFTER this one, but I digress.

In any case, the Flashman series center around one Harry Paget Flashman, famed hero of Victorian England! Of course, Flashy is also a bully, a rake, and inveterate coward, so getting thrown into heroics is the very last thing he’d like. Which is what makes it so entertaining when he’s inevitably thrown into the biggest military fiascoes of the 19th century.

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Specifically, Flashman at the Charge centers around Flashman’s exploits during the Crimean war. The first half of the book centers around how Flashy gets dragged into the Battle of Baclava, where he invariably winds up as part of the Charge of the Light Brigade. (Yes, the “Into the valley of death / rode the six hundred” one).

But before that, Flashy also participates in less famous (but more successful) actions during the battle, such as the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and the Thin Red Line. Both the campaigns and the famous people Flashman meets are meticulously researched– there are even footnotes at the back of the book, so that way you know it’s educational!

The battle only takes up the first part of the book, however. After somehow surviving the Charge of the Light Brigade, Flashman is captured by the Russians and taken far from the front. After a little bit of the obligatory womanizing and chaos, he escapes captivity and falls in with Yakub Beg, a central Asian king (well, he’s not quite a king at the time of the novel but still), and helps him stop a Russian advance into India. Basically Rambo III with a cowardly Englishman.

All of this is written from Flashman’s point of view, as he’s writing down his memoirs. He looks at things with a droll and often hilarious perspective. And again, it’s worth noting that Flashman is a horrible person– he’s often racist, and lusts after nearly every woman he meets –but the thing is, all of this is intentional on Fraser’s part, and Flashman himself is the first to tell the reader of his (many) flaws. The juxtaposition between such a cowardly ‘hero’ and a traditional Victorian-era adventurer is the key conceit that makes the series so interesting.

Flashman at the Charge is a fun book, and well worth a read for anyone with a passing interest in history. It’s fiction, sure, but well researched enough that you still might learn something. Best of both worlds!

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