Thursday, August 31, 2017

George MacDonald Fraser - Flashman and the Mountain of Light

Like a number of Flashman novels, Mountain of Light illuminates a small, but extremely important conflict that fundamentally shaped the British Empire. The First and Second Sikh Wars are almost forgotten today – in fact, while reading this novel I looked up available books on the period, and found almost none, a notable contrast with similar events such as the Indian Mutiny or the First Afghan War.

This is surprising because the subject matter is perfect for a Flashman novel and would make a fascinating historical book. In the novel, Flashman is sent to the Punjab in 1845-1846. In the aftermath of the British withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Sikh’s were hoping to exploit the perceived weaknesses of the British army and expand their own interests. The Sikh kingdom had been in turmoil since the death of Ranjit Singh, the former Maharajah. The British were engaged in trying to shore up their interests by building up military strength.

Facing them was a massive, modern and well trained Sikh army known as the Khalsa which is developing autonomous power, and is champing at the bit to attack the British. Their overwhelming numbers, equipment and training seriously threatened British power. Into this potential mess, Flashman is thrown as an undercover politico whose role is to gather intelligence and do his bit to curry favour with the ruling elite and undermine the Khalsa.

It’s the perfect setting for Flashman. He’s adept at languages, though his cover is soon blown. He has various dalliances with the drunken, promiscuous queen and manages to be present as an observer at the two major battles of the First Sikh War, Ferozeshah and Sobraon. The first of these was a near disaster for the British, only saved by the betrayals of the Sikh commander.

Unusually Flashman’s behaviour (luck rather than judgement) in helping this happen isn’t lauded by his superiors. Unlike many of the novels where Flashman seems to be able to do little wrong, Fraser uses the character of the Governer General Sir Henry Hardinge to expose Flashman for who he really is – a rather chancy character who happens to be in the right place at the right time. As Hardinge points out, had things gone differently Flashman might well have been tried as a traitor.

This isn’t the best Flashman novel, though it’s one of the most interesting historically. Flashman is very much a bystander at great events, rather than an active participant. From what I can tell, Fraser’s historical grounding is exemplary, and he puts his character in the appropriate places. It also seems that however surprising the eccentric behaviour of the supporting characters in the book, it’s not that far from the truth.

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