Monday, 10 March 2014

Royal Flash

Harry Flashman is a damnable rouge. He's a drunk, and a cheat, and a coward, and a liar, and he's one of the most fun characters I can think of. These books are historical fiction, set in the 19th century, which is a brilliant time for adventurers like Flashy to get into trouble.

Flashman's (fictional) memouirs take him all over the world. From Victorian London, to his service in the British Army, to his adventures in the United States, to Africa and beyond.

The first book told of how Flashy was forced, by circumstances of his own creation, to join the British Army and be sent to Afganistan. While there he did his best to run away from danger, avoid any real hard work, and sleep with as many beautiful women as he could.

Flashman is basically the Sterling Archer of the British Empire, but with more running away from danger.

That first book, simply titled Flashman, is one of my favourites, and so I was greatly looking forwards to his second adventure, Royal Flash. Sadly, Royal Flash is much the disappointment. It hinges on one joke: what if the famous adventure novel The Prisoner of Zenda was actually based on a misadventure of Flashman's? A tale of royalty, lookalike imposters, plots, counter-plots and doomed love affairs, Flashman is forced against his will into heroic circumstances against great peril, and in doing so the story loses almost all of the fun.

Flashman has no agency over his own actions in this book. He is forced, by Otto Von Bismark no less, to do everything he does. And while Flashy complains bitterly about it all, he mostly just goes along with things, as a pawn in someone else's story. There is little opportunity for him to get up to any fun, and the adventure plays out much the same as it would with anyone else in his shoes.

The whole joke relies on the reader being familiar with The Prisoner of Zenda, but since that tale has fallen into relative obscurity, the value there was lost on me completely. It's a thin joke, and not enough to sustain the novel.

There are still some excellent passages. Flashy's unfriendly rivalry with Bismark, in steeple-chasing and in a short boxing match, make for two great sections. But the main plot of the thing is a plodding affair, which has little meaning on the story of Flashman's life.

If I were setting out to read the series afresh, I would give this book a miss. It is not essential to the larger tale of Flashy's life, and there's better stories to read first. As a series however, I love Flashman, and loudly recommend it to everyone.

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