Friday, 1 October 1999

George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman and the Dragon (1985)

Edition: Fontana, 1985
Review number: 344

The eighth Flashman novel follows on from the sixth, and deals with the complex situation in China in 1860. In the middle of a civil war which still amounts to one of the most bloodthirsty campaigns in military history (the Taiping Rebellion - only the Second World War had more casualties), the British undertook a major military expedition to escort Lord Elgin to Beijing (then known as Pekin) in safety, there to force the Chinese Emperor to ratify the treaty which ended the Opium Wars. The damage done to Manchu superiority by this expedition, involving thousands of British and French soldiers and leading to much Chinese Imperial loss of face, ranks as one of the most important events in human history, for it sowed the seeds of the eventual downfall of the empire.

The Flashman series is written around the premise that he must be part of every important military action of the mid-nineteenth century and meet every important person. It is inconceivable, therefore, for him not to turn up at this expedition. The way Fraser gets him involved this time is that he accepts a job that he expects will be a doddle, escorting a cargo of opium into China. (His skill with languages means that he can deal with the Chinese authorities.) But he discovers that his cargo is actually far more dangerous - guns being run to supply the Taiping.

Since the previous instalment of the Flashman papers, as Fraser calls them, he seems a rather mellower character. As time goes on, he gets more comfortable to read about, less likely to do something particularly unpleasant. Most of the unpleasantness is concentrated in the barbaric (to European eyes) disregard for death and suffering - and in fact positive joy in causing them - which characterised the Chinese military (both Imperial and Taiping) at this time.

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