Fraser, George MacDonald. Flashman in the Great Game.

NY: Knopf, 1975.

The “Great Game” was the struggle between Britain and Russia for supremacy in southwest Asia which began shortly after the defeat of Napoleon and which lasted until the Bolshevik Revolution. The playing field was Persia, India, and Afghanistan, mostly, and the playbook included frequently heavy-handed diplomacy, economic pressure, and outright espionage. We saw some of that in Flashman at the Charge, when Col. Harry Flashman, devoted coward and roué — and consistently very, very lucky — was captured by Count Ignatief following his escape from the Crimea.

Ignatief, a political agent of the czar, is a coldblooded and thoroughly frightening character, and now, a few years later, he’s busy trying to stir up trouble again. Flashman has an unpleasant encounter with his old nemesis while visiting the Queen at Balmoral with his wife, and then Prime Minister Palmerston calls him in and conscripts him for undercover work in India. So, off he goes to Delhi, and then to the small state of Jhansi, where he becomes enraptured (naturally) with Lakshmibai, the rani, a fascinating historical figure who is now an Indian heroine. But then the whole Russian-British thing gets put on hold for most of the remainder of the book because the real subject here is the Great Mutiny of 1857-58, in which most of the mixed Hindu and Moslem sepoy regiments in cities and posts spread along the Ganges erupted in bloody revolt and massacred not only their British officers but their white families as well. The Mutiny was seen as a massive betrayal back in London, though modern India (of course) regards the rebellion as its first (unsuccessful) War of Independence. Fraser takes us through this horrific series of events from the point of view of the fleeing Flashman, who has to go undercover (and seriously native) to save his skin, and describes and explains it all very competently. And he doesn’t omit the atrocities on either side. Ignatief appears again late in the story, but I’m frankly not aware that Russia had much of anything to do with fomenting the revolt. The British Raj managed that all by themselves, and Flashy’s commentary will tell you why. The whole Russian thing, in fact, seems rather forced this time — but the narrative of Flashman’s adventures during the Mutiny is excellent and highly accurate, and the sheer quality of the storytelling is first-rate.

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