My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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.