May 18, 2005

Flashman in the Great Game, by George MacDonald Fraser

From the title, you'd think that this was a book about the "Great Game" that I've mentioned several times over the last month or so--the Anglo-Russian cold war of the 19th century. And it is, sort of, in an alternate-history sort of way; but not really.

What it really is, is the story of our Harry Flashman caught smack in the middle of the Sepoy Mutiny. The Mutiny was the watershed event in the history of British India. Prior to the Mutiny, India was "ruled" by the East India Company; after the Mutiny the British Government stepped in, Queen Victoria became the Empress of India, and the classic Raj was born.

The Company had subdued the Indian subcontinent with a little scheming, a little bribery, and the help of the Royal Army; but it had its own armies as well, which but for a small corps of British officers were composed entirely of native troops, both hindus and muslims. It was these troops that mutinied, and horrible atrocities were committed upon British men, women, and children all over India. These led to fierce reprisals and counter atrocities, and eventually the Mutiny was put down.

The origins of the Mutiny are murky. There had been signs of unrest for some months before the Mutiny began; indeed, these signs are the reason Flashman is sent to India in the present book. Rumors had spread that the British were going to require native troops to use gunpower cartridges greased with cow or pig fat. This was untrue, but it was a potent rumor nonetheless--anything related to pigs is anathema to muslims, and cow fat was even more dangerous to devout hindus, as touching it could break your caste.

Fraser works the Great Game in in two ways. First, the players of the Great Game often traveled through Central Asia in native guise, and though Flashman never gets anywhere near Central Asia in this particular book (unlike Flashman at the Charge), he does spend quite a bit of time in native guise. And second, Fraser feigns that the Mutiny and related uprisings were fomented by Russia, and in particular by the sinister Count Ignatiev, a Russian great-gamesman of note. And that's why I say this book is about the Great Game in an alternate-history sort of way--it's precisely the sort of thing the Russians would have done if they could have. By this time they'd already launched a couple of abortive strikes on India, never getting farther than Afghanistan, and in each case their plans had included a native uprising which, with the help of the Russian Army, would sweep the British out of India for ever.

But practically speaking, it's not at all clear that the Russians were involved in the run-up to actual event; and as for Count Ignatiev, genuine historical figure that he is, I believe he's included in the current book mostly as a bogey-man for Flashman, who had "met" him in Flashman at the Charge.

Anyway, this is a fascinating book, and worth reading...but I have to admit, it's not much fun--the Mutiny is just too grim a topic.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 18, 2005 08:12 PM

Lars Walker said:

Yes, it's indeed a harrowing book, though thankfully the most awful stuff happens off-stage. What I remember most about it is that Flashman gets so angry that he actually has a moment or two of something that almost resembles a kind of courage.

Will Duquette said:

This is true, and I should have mentioned it--there are one or two moments where Flashman actually moves to protect someone else even though it puts him in danger. Not only that, but it wasn't part of some scheme to impress some watching bigwig; for once in his career, Flashy did someting disinterestedly valorous.

Not that this makes up for his behavior in the rest of the book, mind you....