A mission to rescue British citizens held hostage in Abyssinia by a “mad cannibal” king tests the battle-scarred mettle of Fraser’s redoubtable antihero.
In “Flashy’s” 12th adventure (following Flashman and the Tiger, 2000), the often-decorated, often-reviled Victorian soldier of fortune—the preening cad of Tom Brown’s School Days, grown older—finds trouble in Trieste, after dallying with an Austrian admiral’s nubile niece. In disgrace and in flight, Sir Harry fortuitously encounters an old friend from the Foreign Office, and is engaged to transport Austrian silver to Abyssinia, for the purpose of bribing into inaction potential allies of obstreperous “Ethiopian” Emperor Theodore, who loves nothing so much as opposing British incursions into his lands (the year is 1867, the expedition the historical rescue mission led by General Robert Napier). Fraser enters the text with imperturbable élan, offering useful summaries of Flashy’s earlier adventures and misdeeds, as well as entertaining footnotes. The great appeal of the Flashman novels is their abundant energy, beautifully communicated by Fraser’s pungent declarative style, a fine vehicle for action writing. It’s hard not to be caught up in Harry’s amorous pursuit of (and by) lustful indigenous beauties (including the emperor’s sworn rival), his narrow escapes and the escalating events that lead to a rousing climactic battle, and the bitter choice left to the embattled Theodore (quite a nicely drawn character). Conversely, Fraser’s manifest celebration of the imperialist mentality (with all the casual racism and xenophobia thereto appertaining) is disquieting—indeed, it often seems carefully calculated to offend liberal views (Flashman and, one guesses, Fraser, would call them pieties).
The series is an acquired taste. Readers who’ve acquired it should not miss this installment.