May 03, 2005

Flashman at the Charge, by George MacDonald Fraser

This is the fourth Flashman novel in the order of initial publication; I skipped the two intervening novels because this one brings us back to Central Asia and the lands of the Great Game.

The book begins with a lengthy explanation of how Flashman, always content to play the devil around London, is dragooned into going to the Crimea as a galloper for General Raglan. The Crimean War was one of the few times when the 19th century cold war between Russia and Great Britain actually turned hot, though the cause in this case wasn't the possibility of a Russian invasion of India, but of a Russian invasion of Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was still a "power" in those days; I use scare quotes because it was rather a senile and incompetent power, right on the verge of collapse. But nobody in Europe wanted to deal with the mess that would follow the breakup of the Ottoman Empire--and rightly so, it finally broke up with the first World War, and we're still picking up the pieces even today. Anyway, England want to war with Russia to prevent Russia invading Turkey, and much tragedy ensued.

It was an extremely bad day in Balaclava for our Harry; a determined coward, he was forced to participate in the Thin Red Line (when a thin line of British troops held off a Russian cavalry charge), the Charge of the Heavy Brigade (when a brigade of British cavalry charged a much larger force of Russians--uphill--and somehow survived the experience), and the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, Exhibit A in the annals of stupid military decisions, where for no good reason a brigade of British cavalry charged down a long, narrow valley lined with guns on both sides and the far end and were largely blown to bits.

Flashman survived, naturally, but was captured by the Russians. He later managed to escape, was captured near the Caspian Sea, and was imprisoned in the same cell as a rogue named Yakub Beg, leader of the armies of the city-state of Khokand. After their escape, Flashman is forced to help Yakub put paid to a Russian army which is trying to conquer Khokand and surrounding regions so as to pave a way to India.

Yakub Beg's an interesting character; Peter Hopkirk's book The Great Game doesn't have much to say about his earlier career, during which he would have met Flashman, but later on Yakub conquered the city-state of Kashgar, across the Pamir range from Khokand, and set up a little kingdom for himself there at the western end of what was then called Chinese Turkestan. As its ruler, he was to play a major role in the later period of the Great Game.

Anyway, "Flash Harry" is in his usual form throughout. He tells a good tale, but otherwise goodness has little to do with it.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 3, 2005 08:25 PM