Sir Harry Flashman, that mid-19th century rapscallion, is at it again in FLASHMAN ON THE MARCH, a new adventure by George MacDonald Fraser. This time he's enmeshed in the Abyssinian Wars in 1868. He bluffs and bungles his way into a winning situation, but not without a boatload of near-tragedies.
As has become the pattern in this series of novels (this is the twelfth release in the historical fiction franchise), Flashman falls into a situation in which his ill-gotten reputation as a soldier extraordinaire does him disservice. Thrust into a mission that would have him aid in the overthrow of King Theodore, a maniacal, blood-thirsty ruler, Flashman must find a way to accomplish the task while keeping his sorry hide intact. Along the way, he finds time to bed not one, but two, main female characters. In addition to his innate cowardice and self-centeredness, Flashman is a scandalous lothario, kissing and telling of his amorous exploits with the most unlikely, seemingly unattainable beauties. These affairs usually come back to haunt him in manners more or less threatening.
After once again receiving undeserved credit for a serendipitous event, he muses, in a rare moment of introspection:
"All my life, people have been taking me at face value, supposing that such a big, bluff daredevilish-looking fellow must be heroic, but here was a new and wondrous misconception. Just because I tickled his funny-bone years ago…I must therefore be 'good-hearted'…and even humane and chivalrous, God help us, the kind of decent Christian whose conscience would be wrung to ribbons because he'd felt obliged to do away with an inconvenient [enemy] for the sake of the side." (The original language is a tad saltier; Flashman is no poster-boy for political correctness, although this no doubt reflects the "sensibilities" of his times.)
Fraser, who served in a Highland Regiment in Africa, India and the Middle East, is a stickler for detail, whether it's the presence of historical figures in the narrative --- such as King Theodore and Robert Cornelis Napier, who led the British forces during the Abyssinian campaign --- or using archaic language. Other prominent personages in the Flashman series (which began in 1969 with, appropriately enough, FLASHMAN) include Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Otto von Bismarck, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Fraser also includes footnotes describing some of the more arcane references. At times, however, such a device can cause the reader's eyes to glaze over; only a true student of the period would appreciate such a degree of minutia.
Nevertheless, for a fictional character "born" more than 30 years ago, Harry Flashman has aged very well.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 22, 2011