Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman and the Mountain of Light.

NY: Knopf, 1991.

Even though this is the ninth-written of the “Flashman Papers,” by internal chronology it’s the (I think) second installment, set in 1845-46, only shortly after the retreat from Kabul in which young Lieut. Flashman figured so prominently in the first volume. He’s back on the Northwest Frontier of India now, angling for a way to get home to England and out of constant danger, but events and his own growing (and entirely bogus) reputation aren’t going to allow that.

The Sikhs who control the Punjab are increasingly nervous about the British gradually taking over more and more of the Subcontinent — will it be their turn next? — and their response is to build the largest and best equipped and trained army outside of Europe: the Khalsa. Actually, the British don’t really want to conquer the Punjab, which would be far too expensive in men and money. They just want a quiet, stable regime in control next door. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, either. And Flashman? Why, he’s just the ticket to be envoy to the restless Sikh government in Lahore, acting as ambassador, negotiator, and intelligence agent. But the government is in the control of Jeendan, an ex-dancing girl who married the previous late Maharajah. She’s regent, more or less, for her nine-year-old son, the heir, and she’s a very sharp operator indeed — as well as a frequently drunken, unashamedly lascivious libertine. Well, that’s more in Flashman’s line. What follows is the story of the build-up to and progress of the First Sikh War, all the important parts of which happened just as Flashman relates. It’s an amazing account, with the native commanding generals doing their best to lose the war so their country will be better protected by the British, and with the Maharani getting even with the Khalsa for the public murder of her brother at their hands. It reminds me a bit of The Mouse That Roared, but for the footnotes and appendices that document it all. The narrative is somewhat smoother than in the first book and Flashy is smoother, too — still a card-carrying coward but not quite such an unadorned poltroon. The style and the slang is very much of the mid-19th century. Oh, and the “Mountain of Light” to which the title refers? That’s the Koh-i-Noor, the largest cut diamond of its time, which eventually found its way into the Crown Jewels at the Tower. And who do you think put it there?

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