Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser – Review [Lord of the Night]

Ol' Flashy himself, and the famous cavalry whiskers.

Lord of the Night reviews the incredible Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser.

“A riotously funny adventure with a protagonist who gives new meaning to the words cad, rake, trickster, coward, liar and knave. And with quite possibly some of the best research in fiction backing up the stories, this is a series that is not to be overlooked by any fans of historical fiction.” – The Founding Fields

Now I got into Flashman at the start of 2012 when I read a tidbit from Sandy Mitchell about how Ciaphas Cain was based on two characters. Edmund Blackadder whom i’m familiar with, and Harry Paget Flashman whom I was not. I quickly rectified that and now name The Flashman Papers as one of my favourite series of all time and some of the best books ever written.

It is the Victorian Age and Britain needs a hero to defend her shores and protect her interests. A man of bravery, selflessness, piety, honesty and the willingness to lay down his life for his country. Unfortunately all they have is Harry Flashman, scoundrel, cad and all around liar; fortunately nobody knows these things. Expelled from Rugby School for drunkeness, this once-and-still bully of Tom Brown’s School Days finds himself shipped off to Afghanistan and into the thick of one of Britain’s greatest military defeats. Can Flashman emerge from this catastrophe with his reputation, and life, intact all the while dodging vengeful natives bent on murdering him, dealing with incompetent generals determined to get him killed and trying to avoid combat like the plague? If anybody can do it, it’s history’s greatest cad Harry Paget Flashman!

Flashman is a hell of a novel, and a hell of a series. I’ll start with something that will shock you, when this book was first released in 1969 there were several reviewers, among them some academics, who actually believed this book was real. Not just for the style of the writing but the meticulousness of the research and the period language and the historical facts that actually made academics believe that this book actually happened and that Harry Flashman was real. God help us if that was true. But that is how well Fraser researched his background material and how well he told the story, and that most everything that happened in this book is true. Of course Flashman isn’t real, or at least this Flashman was not, but the remainder of the novel, most of the characters, the plot and historical events were all real and did actually happen. Show me another author who could fool academics into believing a story about a cad like Flashman serving England’s military and i’ll be impressed.

Harry Paget Flashman is a damn interesting character. He’s no hero and that becomes apparant very quickly in the novel, one particular scene ramming it home like nothing else could, but it’s not often that you hear that statement and find a character who is not an unlikely hero but rather a selfish and egotistical cad. When it says that Flashman is no hero, and even he doesn’t think so, it isn’t a joke. But somehow you can’t help but root for Flashman as he deals with people much worse than he is, idiots that you just can’t believe were real and really made these choices, or the pious holy-than-thou sort that irritate you and Flashman with how much better they think they are. I like Flashman because he’s often the smart one, the one who sees how pear-shaped everything is and does what any smart person would do, get the hell out. Yet often Flashman’s problems are of his own making and all you can do is shake your head and know that somehow this lavicious lovely that Flashman is diddling will get him in yet another horrific situation. It’s a sign of Fraser’s skill as a writer that he can make such a destetable character into a damn fun one to read about and often root for.

Ol’ Flashy himself, and the famous cavalry whiskers.

The action is remarkably well done and really gives some insight into some of the most famous and most terrifying military actions the British Empire undertook in the 19th century. Fraser, despite having a coward for a protagonist, does feature a lot of action and even though Flashman is on the sidelines whenever he can be, he does partake in quite a few scuffles and is actually decent at fighting, he just hates doing it. But when Flashman does get into a fight it’s as sharp and impressive as the rest of the novel, and often rather funny as Flashman’s cowardly antics and survival instinct often get him in even more trouble even as he survives what was just thrown at him.

The pacing of the very is very nice, but it’s the atmosphere and the tone of the novel that are really engrossing. Everything about the novel feels accurate to the time period, so much so that you can really believe why some people thought this was a real journal of a Victorian Age hero and not a historical fiction novel. I particularly enjoy the language, Fraser really makes the characters feel and read like Victorian age Britains through their choice of endearments, insults and other such things. And of course the historical accuracy is nothing short of amazing, and when you consider what occurs in ths novel rather sad that these events did actually happen. Of course Flashman’s part in it is fictionalized, but the series makes history fun and fascinating and each novel is not only a chance to read a damn good story, it’s also a chance to learn a little bit about a very fascinating period for England. Fraser backs up his story with meticulous research filed away in the final few pages, with cliffnotes marking each page telling you where you need to look in order to understand a saying that Flashman uses or to learn more about something important that he rattles off without thinking about the deeper ramifications of it, or to confirm a fact that will likely surprise you.

Now in my other reviews i’d post a favourite quote, but unfortunately with Flashman most of the really good stuff, or funny stuff, takes longer than two lines to read and without the whole thing, many lines lose their luster. So only posting a single quote wouldn’t really be as good as posting a whole paragraph, which i’m not going to do.

The ending is remarkably funny and sets the tone for the rest of the series. Ol’ Flashy has survived his Afghan adventure in a mostly ok condition, as you’ll understand from the very beginning since these are meant to be his memoirs and as such his survival is never in question, and when you find out how he survived covered in glory, you’ll either curse him for a coward or be laughing your head off with me. But you’ll definitely be surprised by how this unlikely coward becomes a hero of the British crown and one of the most celebrated heroes of Victorian England.

For a hilarious story, a damn fine protagonist that you’ll love to hate or just plain admire, and what I do believe is some of the best research put into a novel/series ever, I give Flashman a score of 8.5/10. This is a novel I would recommend to any fan of historical fiction, military history, adventure or anyone who wants a really good laugh. The Flashman Papers is a roaringly funny series and one that actually makes you think about history and makes it interesting in the bargain. I know there are many topics of history that I know about now thanks to Flashman and it greatly saddens me that there will be no more in the future due to Mr. MacDonald Fraser’s untimely death in 2008.

That’s it for this review. I’ll be reviewing all 8 of the 12 Flashman books that I have read. Next is Flashman’s Lady, so until next time,


Lord of the Night

Lord of the Night is one of TFF’s original reviewers. He’s done quite a few for TFF and that number keeps expanding. You’ll enjoy his diverse mix of book reviews. Always a treat.