Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Flash for Freedom - a few brief words to begin

I did this for Flashman and Royal Flash, I liked writing them and it kind of got me in the mood to read the books, so I’ll stick with it for Flash for Freedom. There’s not as much background needed as was for the other two, but I can still find things to point out. This was the first Flashman book where George MacDonald Fraser could branch out and break away from what he’d done before. It’s also Harry doing something largely on his own. What he did in Flashman was his duty, or attempt to do his duty, and Royal Flash was because he was being forced to impersonate Prince Carl Gustaf by Bismarck and his bully boys. In Flash for Freedom he’s certainly not a willing participant, but he’s largely dropped into things and forced to keep himself alive and get back to England. That last thing is a common theme through nearly all of the books, Flashman is always trying to get back to England and Elspeth, it’s like he see the two things as safe, which to him in many ways, they are.

Flash for Freedom is also the first time Harry goes to the United States, he returns there for other adventures after, George MacDonald Fraser seems to have a good deal of affection for the US, and as always his research is impeccable. I think he tended to like wherever he set the adventures, because you couldn’t do that amount of research and write the books without such a sense of irreverent fun without being somewhat fond of your setting and situation.

I’ve never liked the title. The titles work much better when they’re Flashman and the… or Flashman in the…, etc… This was the last time they got clever with the titles. It does sound really clunky and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Royal Flash was a rather clever play on words and directly referenced the content of the book. Okay, Flash for Freedom deals with slavery, but it doesn’t really convey an awful lot. I’m not sure what an alternative title that wouldn’t offend people may have been, given the sensitive nature of the content, but I’m sure the marketing department of the publisher could have come up with something better than what eventually came out.

It’s the first of the books that actually ends on a cliffhanger, seriously it does. I’m damn glad I didn’t read it when it first came out, because Fraser left readers hanging for 3 books and a few years before he wrote the packet that directly follows Flash for Freedom. Evil, evil man!

If no one’s worked this out I’m a Joss Whedon fan, and I will occasionally use Jossisms here. I said that to explain the next little bit. The Flashman’s don’t really contain a single bad guy as such. It’s generally whoever is trying to kill Harry, and he certainly knows how to get people’s backs up. Villains don’t often appear for more than one book at a time, although there is an exception to this in Flashman at the Charge and Flashman in the Great Game. Flash for Freedom contains the first appearance of a character who in 'Joss speak' is the series’ equivalent of a ‘big bad’. I shall say no more until I get to the introduction of said character, but you have been warned.

This is also where you first run into issues with publication order versus chronological order. Flash for Freedom picks up where Royal Flash left off, but to be strictly chronological you should read Flashman's Lady and Flashman and the Mountain of Light, which cover the years in between the first part of Royal Flash and the final two thirds.

That’s about all I can really come up with, join me tomorrow when the fun really begins!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lex Trent Versus The Gods by Alex Bell

I like inventive YA books that take familiar mythology and twist them to create new worlds and interesting concepts. I like caper stories. I like stories that focus on cocky anti heroes like thieves and conmen. With a list like that I should have been right into Lex Trent Versus The Gods, Alex Bell’s YA debut.

It contains an interesting setting; a world split into two halves, the Lands Above, inhabited by those who are not Gods, and the Lands Below, curiously in an inversion of the regular trope, inhabited by the Gods. It was hard to pin down exactly what time period the author was aiming for, it seemed to shift depending on where the action was. Some settings were medieval in origin and others resembled the 19th century, there was also a mention of action figures and plastic bags, which come from the 20th century, but the rest of the non magical technology was largely pre industrial. The ‘hero’ of the piece is Lex Trent, an insufferably cocky, amazingly lucky thief/conman. In an effort to escape justice and under a powerful enchantment Lex is used as the ‘player’ by his Goddess the Lady Luck, along with his reluctant former employer, the straight laced and highly moral lawyer Mr Schmidt, in a game the Gods play amongst each other for their own amusement using mortals as their pieces.

It’s a cool idea and the setting allows for all sorts of fun; a village of fairy godmothers, a magical hat, an enchanted flying ship, Alex Bell gave her imagination full reign with this one, she mined Greek mythology quite heavily and there were also elements of Paul Stewart’s and Chris Riddell’s Edge Chronicles, especially in the naming of some of the creatures and the idea of the worlds being tethered to each other via a series of ladders.

Given all these elements I should have loved Lex Trent Versus The Gods and should be happily devouring it’s sequel (Lex Trent: Fighting With Fire) by now. Why didn’t this happen? Mainly because of Lex himself. The character is a seventeen year old thief/conman, somewhat in the mould of a young Locke Lamora or Raymond Feist’s Jimmy the Hand, but after initially appealing to me, he proved to not have the charm of the other two, and I couldn’t warm to him. He starts out incredibly cocky and willing to stab anyone in the back to get ahead, and that’s how he ends up. Despite multiple opportunities to change and his greatest strengths (arrogance, duplicity) also being shown up to be his greatest weaknesses, the character never alters and consequently remains rather shallow and one dimensional. I found his unwilling accomplice Mr Schmidt a far more interesting and layered character (now a book about him may be really worth reading). I had hoped Lex may change, but he never did, and seems destined to continue in the same vein in the sequel. Another small nit pick was the lack of a strong female character, aside from Lady Luck, and she doesn’t really classify as a main character, there are remarkably few women in Lex Trent Versus The Gods, it would have been nice to have a female version of Lex to slap him down or best him once or twice. The opportunity was there to do this with Lex’s twin brother, but it wasn’t taken, and Lucius was used as Lex’s whipping boy for most of the book.

I realise I’m not the target audience, but I’ve read YA with more multi layered and far more likeable protagonists in the past, it may be that I’m comparing Lex Trent Versus The Gods unfavourably with my last few reads, which were books that grabbed me early on and refused to let me go until I completed them. I was genuinely reluctant to put those books down and kept going back to them every chance I got, I unfortunately didn’t get that with Lex Trent Versus The Gods.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer is a bit of a departure for the British author and former politician. It's not about politics or finance, it's not a family saga, and it is largely based on historical fact. It's, I suspect a highly fictionalised, biography of British mountaineer George Mallory.

Mallory has become one of those footnote historical figures. He was among the first Europeans to make an assault on Mount Everest. It's still debatable as to whether he actually made it to the top of the mountain. He perished a long way up the world's highest peak in 1924, his second major attempt. The body was not recovered until 1999, and even now debates rage about whether he attained the peak or not. If it can ever be proven that he did then history will have to be rewritten, noting that it was George Mallory and not Edmund Hillary who first successfully climbed Everest. The New Zealander would still however be the first man to survive the climb.

Paths of Glory follows Mallory from his early days as an adventurous child in 1892, through his school days where he first discovered his joy in climbing and driving himself to be better and climb higher than anyone else, along the journey to his ultimate destiny he encounters other famous climbers, his contemporary Geoffrey Young, who in many ways was a superior climber to Mallory himself, but an injury incurred during the First World War put paid to his dream of conquering Everest, and the pugnacious Australian George Finch (George Finch is probably more famous these days for being the father of the Oscar winning actor Peter Finch), who was the first person to suggest using oxygen to help climbers going above 25,000 feet.

Despite knowing the ending, I did find Paths of Glory a highly readable novel. It helps that I regard the first 20 - 30 years of the 20th century as a real age of adventure and exploration and Mallory's story is right smack bang in the middle of all that. At times it becomes a little soap operatic, Archer does this, but mainly when it deals with Mallory's home life. The climbing and travelling sections are fascinating and would be of interest to any one who likes mountaineering or exploring. Archer also painted Mallory as a paragon of virtue. I don't doubt that the man had many marvelous qualities, but I don't think he was quiet ready for the sainthood that Jeffrey Archer seemed to want to award him in the book.

There's a nice section in the back of the book, which briefly covers what happened to most of the book's major characters. Recommended as an interesting and diverting read.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Earlier this month I read the first of Ben Aaronovitch’s Folly series see review here (Rivers of London UK/Midnight Riot in the US) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Moon Over Soho is the sequel and it fully lives up to the promise shown in it’s predecessor.

Picking up not that long after the events of Rivers of London, Moon Over Soho finds plainclothes London policeman and apprentice wizard Peter Grant still toiling away at his studies and his job, whilst dealing with the fall out from the previous book, mostly the injuries and terrible facial disfiguration suffered by his partner and friend; Leslie Mays. He’s just visited Leslie and not really enjoyed the experience all that much when he receives a call to attend the morgue.

He is confronted by a body that appears to have suffered a heart attack and died. Peter’s not at all sure why the Folly’s regular medical contact; Dr Walid, has called him about this until he hears the notes of the jazz standard ‘Body and Soul’ floating from the corpse. All of a sudden bodies of jazzmen start turning up with two things in common; they die of heart attacks despite age and physical fitness, and ‘Body and Soul' is involved.

Peter’s father is an old jazzman, a former trumpeter commonly known to other members of London’s jazz community as ‘Lord’ Grant due to a comment made by Ray Charles after hearing Richard Grant play one night. That makes this case right up Peter’s alley, and he soon finds himself haunting jazz clubs with one of the victim’s old band mates and finding out that there’s more to his dear old Dad than a long forgotten career wrecked by bad luck, ill health and drug addiction. He also falls under the spell of Simone, the girlfriend of the first dead jazzman to crop up.

The more Peter searches, the more anomalies he turns up, and he finds that following this case and trying to keep himself alive as the fall out from another ongoing series of murders accumulates, is not all that easy, and then there’s the mystery of Simone, she’s not what she seems and what is the bewitching hold she has on her lovers, Peter included, and her love of jazz?

There’s less of the minutiae of police procedure this time, although I found that interesting in the first book, yet the author displays a wealth of knowledge on that subject. He also appears to have done his homework on jazz music and the London jazz scene. Peter is a highly engaging narrator and the books are worth reading for his little deviations into items of historical interest, some things are thrown in by random, or so it seems, but they always turn up to be pertinent to the plot. Aaronovitch has given his protagonist a highly amusing turn of phrase and interesting outlook on things in general. Peter is fast becoming one of my favourite and most interesting urban fantasy heroes.

There’s also some interesting revelations and background given to Peter’s mentor Nightingale and their maid; Molly, who has become an intriguing and strangely endearing peripheral character.

The final part of this book made my jaw drop and the hints of what is to come has insured that I’ll be snapping up the third Folly book; Whispers Under Ground, the second I see it for sale.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

The list challenge continues! Inkheart by Cornelia Funke is the last of the F's.

Going from something intense and dark like Steven Erikson's Malazan Books of the Fallen to what is becoming a children's classic like Cornelia Funke's Inkheart may seem like a bit of a culture shock, and it kind of is, but that's part of the beauty of doing this list. I'm never really sure what I'm going to get, unless I happen to have already read the work in question.

I've picked Inkheart up and put it down a number of time in bookstores over the years. I do like a bit of YA work or even things written for younger audiences. I find that they often have a sense of wonder and adventure that is sometimes lacking in work done for older audiences. The idea behind Inkheart appealed to me, but there was a lack of depth from what I read when thinking about whether or not read it. The film done a couple of years ago held some interest, but I never got around to seeing it, so the book remained unread by me, that is until it appeared on the list.

Cornelia Funke made her name in the publishing world as an illustrator before writing her own stories. Some editions of Inkheart contain her illustrations, although I don't think the one I read did.

The premise behind the book is that certain people can actually pull the characters and creatures contained in books out of their fictional worlds and into ours by reading about them. Unfortunately this comes with a price, if something is removed from a book world, then something from this world has to replace it. Bookbinder Mo Folchart knows this better than most, having accidentally read characters out of children's tale Inkheart and losing his wife, Teresa to the book. HIs daughter Meggie, does not know about her father's ability or that he lives in fear that she may too develop it.

One day the father and daughter's life is disrupted by an odd, scarred man going by the name of Dustfinger and travelling with a tame marten he calls Gwin. Dustfinger is one of the character Mo read out of Inkheart all those years ago and now he wants to deliver Mo to his dark master Capricorn, in return he hopes to be read back into his world of fiction.

What follows is Mo, Meggie and Dustfinger, along with Gwin, trying to avoid Capricorn's far reaching fingers. Their journey will take them to Meggie's great aunt; the book collector Elinor, they'll be captured and escape multiple times. They will meet the author of Inkheart, eventually stand up to Capricorn and the family will be reunited.

For a children's book, it seems to be aimed at a pre teen set, Inkheart is a very bleak and quite often dark story. The fictional story of Inkheart, while readers don't see all of it, they do see some of the characters, and this was a weakness of the book to me, because the characters and even the way it's creator Fenoglio speaks about it indicate that it's a pretty unpleasant sort of story and I can't see why anyone would be attracted to it.

There's not a lot of fantasy in the first two thirds of the book, that tends to read more like a combination of children's mystery and adventure, the fantasy aspect ramps up significantly late in the book. What sets Inkheart apart from other works written for children is the very evident love of books by most of the characters, and that they love them in different ways for different reasons. There was the rather curious idea that no one believes book authors are living breathing people, they're all dead consigned to history with only their works remaining. I don't think I ever thought this and I'm not really sure why Cornelia Funke felt other people would go along with that particular theory.

The book is presented well and the chapters are all named with definite meaning behind each one. At the beginning of each chapter is a short quote from works of classic fiction, most are children's books, although not all, and again the author's love of books is in evidence.

Inkheart is the first of a trilogy, taken together the three books (the other two are Inkspell and Inkdeath) are known as the Inkworld trilogy. Despite this the first one is self contained and can be read without needing to read the sequels, although there's enough to suggest that that author could continue the story if she wished. It was an interesting idea although I felt the characters became rather stereotypical and I didn't quite buy the ending, so wouldn't read the other volumes in the trilogy, although I know it's not aimed at me.

The best example I've ever seen of blurring the lines between fiction and reality is in Jasper Fforde's hysterically funny Thursday Next series, and I would recommend that to anyone who is intrigued by the concept of Inkheart.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Admitting Defeat - The Malazan Books of the Fallen

When I read Gardens of the Moon (first of Steven Erikson's massive 10 Malazan Books of the Fallen epic series) some months ago my intention had been to gradually read each of the books, finishing up with the final of that particular section of the series; The Crippled God. There are five planned books by Erikson's co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont, 4 of which are currently out, and Erikson himself has another two trilogies and 6 novellas planned. I was going to confine myself to Erikson's 10 books, and possibly read the Esslemont's if I enjoyed the Erikson's enough.

I found Gardens of the Moon tough going at times, but not particularly hard to follow, as some have said. I didn't find myself getting caught up in the story or warming to any of the characters, although I must confess to liking Kruppe and his penchant for referring to himself in the third person. Various events in my reading life meant that I was delayed from reading the 2nd book in the series; Deadhouse Gates, until December of last year.

Like Gardens of the Moon I struggled with Deadhouse Gates. The ending was spectacular, but again it took a long time to get there, and although I knew this was the case, it didn't make the fact that it followed a completely separate storyline to the one begun in Gardens of the Moon any less frustrating. I did ask myself multiple times throughout the book exactly what the point of it all was. Both books showcased a seemingly endless struggle between warring parties of which the members seemed to vacillate between sides on a whim. In that particular book the cast expanded significantly and Erikson killed off the only character I even came close to connecting with, although I thought he was probably doomed from the start anyway.

I hate giving up on books or series, so I dutifully picked up Memories of Ice this month. Some of what I'd read from various bloggers said that if you had been able to stick with the series through the first 2 books then Memories of Ice provided a payoff of sorts because it was an excellent book, well Kruppe returned and I liked some of the exchanges between Toc the Younger and Lady Envy, but there was still a disconnection for me, and I have to admit I gave up halfway through the book. I haven't given up on a book for years without finishing it, but with Memories of Ice I didn't see the point in continuing. For whatever reason the series just wasn't grabbing me and apart from Kruppe, largely because I find him funny, and Toc and Envy, I really didn't care about the rest of the characters.

The fact that The Malazan Books of the Fallen didn't do it for me is in no way a reflection on the quality of the series. It's actually quite well written, if in my opinion, under edited. I just felt that after two and a half books and near 2,000 pages there should have been something to keep me reading and for me there just wasn't.

So, I have to admit that The Malazan Books of the Fallen have claimed another victim.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Circus of Dr Lao by Charles G. Finney

The Circus of Dr Lao is the 3rd of the F's and 32nd overall in the challenge.

The author Charles G. Finney was a newspaperman who had also been in the army and spent time stationed in Asia. The Circus of Dr Lao was published in 1935, and is the best known of Finney's few books, it was conceived while he was in the army in Tientsin. It was made into a film; 7 Faces of Dr Lao, in 1964. Despite this it's a little known classic of fantasy, although it has influenced a number of writers, especially Ray Bradbury.

The circus run by the mysterious and mischievious Dr Lao comes to the small midwestern US town of Abalone, Arizona. It isn't quite what the townspeople expect. Dr Lao's circus has no actual animals or clowns or highwire acts. It does however have creatures of myth and legend: a unicorn, a Medusa and a sphinx amongst it's roster.The fortune teller tells genuine fortunes and can see the future, he also doubles as the show's magician, he is the legendary Apollonius of Tyana. There are some devastatingly accurate portraits of the small town population and their reactions to the unusualness amongst them. The philosophical conversation between the meticulous and pedantic proofreader Mr Etaoin and Dr Lao's sea serpent is a highlight and a delight. It's quite a short volume, but has true wonder in it's few pages and there's a fun catalogue at the back where the newspaperman in the author comes to the fore as he explains what happened to the characters as he invents backgrounds and futures for his creations.

The book although slim, does offer plenty of food for thought and is written in an easy to understand and read manner. As I was reading it and covering the various mythological creatures that comprised Dr Lao's circus I thought how much like a contemporary or urban fantasy it was, and it may have even been the forerunner of some of the titles that comprise the hot new subgenre.

Ray Bradbury admired The Circus of Dr Lao, and it may have provided some of the inspiration for his classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, another entertaining story of a circus or fair that is not what it initially appears to be is Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard. This is one I can see myself reading again.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold

Babylon Steel is Gaie Sebold's debut novel and has been identified by the publisher Solaris as one of their releases to look for in 2012. The sequel Hunter's Moon has also been acquired by Solaris, so there's good news for anyone who enjoyed Babylon Steel.

Babylon Steel is a rather Xena Warrior Princess style sword for hire and brothel owner. Babylon lives and works in Scalentine, which is a kind of interdimensional portal. Most of Scalentine's inhabitants come there to escape their pasts, and Babylon is no exception. The chapters set in Scalentine are interspersed with others set on the world of Tiresana, Babylon's original home plane, and they cover her life before she found her way to Scalentine and set up her high class establishment the Red Lantern.

The strengths of Babylon Steel are the setting of Scalentine and the characters. The folk who work the Red Lantern from the S&M twins Cruel and Unusual, who cater for clients wanting a somewhat more memorable experience to the fey Laney, who can give clients the unique experience of having made love to a genuinely magical creature, or even the Orc cook and former pit fighter Flower, are not just employees, they share in the profits and they're as much family as anything else.

The inhabitants of Scalentine range from fey like Laney to four armed hermaphroditic aliens, and it is this world with all it's denizens and gutter crawlers that Babylon ranges through trying to find answers that will help her once and for all put her past truly behind her.

It's a real fun romp full of sex, violence and rock and... no sorry there's no rock and roll, but there possibly should be. Cruel and Unusual would make a great front pair for any rock band. Gaie, being British, does tend to use a peculiarly English form of street slang which she may want to cut down on for future books, because it tended to take me out of the alien landscape of Scalentine.

I did love the setting, though. Scalentine put me in mind of the Time Station from Robert Aspin and Linda Evan's Timescout series, which was a short lived series that I really enjoyed and still wonder why there weren't more books in it.

Despite Babylon Steel reading as a largely self contained story, it has been left open for further adventures, hence the sequel Hunter's Moon (I wonder if Hunter or Moon are going to be character names?), and I hope that the budding romance between the often on the wrong side of the law Babylon and Scalentine's head law enforcer the werewolf Chief Bitternut (shades of Alexia Tarabotti and Conall Maccon in Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate there) comes to something in the future.

My first new book of 2012 and both the year and Ms Sebold's career are off to a flying start.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Royal Flash - a wrap up

Royal Flash is a bit of an anomaly in the series. It's the only one set entirely in Europe, it's the only one to feature a fictional country, and it's the only book to be mostly based on an already published and successful piece of fiction.

I don't pretend to know George MacDonald Fraser's thoughts, but I doubt Royal Flash would have ever been written if someone hadn't been in his ear about the possibility of a motion picture based on the hero's exploits. I said in my opening about the book that I felt it was based on The Prisoner of Zenda, because they wanted to make a film about Harry and needed something that was adaptable. Had this not been the case Flash for Freedom; the 3rd book, and one of the clunkiest titles, may have been the 2nd book, and Fraser would have found another, possibly more interesting and more historically accurate, way for Flashman to account for his time in 1847 - 48. Flashman's Lady and Flashman and the Mountain of Light more than account for what he was doing following the events of Flashman and before being duped by Otto von Bismarck into masquerading as Prince Carl Gustaf.

Although I loved it the first time I read it and felt that it was far superior to the film, I still do mind you, I find it less successful as a Flashman book. It's fairly trivial and really the presence of Lola, one of Harry's genuine loves and the introduction of Rudi Starnsberg, who even though he was based on Rupert of Hentzau, is quite a unique character in his own right, and someone that Flashman often refers to throughout his other adventures. The other disappointing thing about Royal Flash is that overall it doesn't have much of an affect or impact on his life and career as a whole.

Join me in Feburary for Flash for Freedom, where Harry goes to America and encounters slavery.

Royal Flash - Chapter 10

In the 10th and final chapter of Royal Flash readers get to see if Harry Flashman can get out of his European odyssey and arrive home to Elspeth safe and sound.

Now saying that may appear slightly odd. Royal Flash is the 2nd of 12 books about the character. Everyone knows he must have gotten out of it okay, because otherwise how can he at the age of over 80 be writing his unexpurgated memoirs? The reason I say it is that the books don't always end as such. This one does, but others have ended on cliffhangers.

Harry is hightailing it out of Strackenz with his ill gotten gains and heads for Munich. He's deduced by now that Rudi's story about him having broken the law for his little episode with Baroness Pechman was just that...a story. He no more broke the law in Munich by doing that than he would have in London, admittedly he'd be in trouble if Baron Pechman caught up to him, but knowing how Bismarck fitted Harry up it's highly unlikely that there is a Baron Pechman, in fact Baroness Pechman may not have even been a Baroness, after all Harry Flashman wasn't a prince, but everyone thought he was because they were told he was, and because he bore a striking resemblance to Carl Gustaf. I think there's a bit of a point being made throughout the book. Harry isn't a hero, but everyone thinks he is because he looks like one and he tells people he is.

Munich, like much of the rest of Europe at the time, is in an uproar. The people are sick of Kind Ludwig's excesses, and he's about to be overthrown. They also focus their anger against the King's mistress; Lola Montez. In another of the actual historical events that populate the books Lola faces down an angry mob and walks through them into her coach. Harry realising that Lola is his best chance to get out of Germany and Europe runs after the coach, he has to hope Lola is willing to pick him, because he is absolutely skint, and it's not like he can pull a jewelled ring or something out of his valise and use it to pay for a train ticket.

Luckily Lola still has some affectionate feelings for her former lover, despite his actions and behaviour towards her in the past and lets him on. The two travel for a time, until one morning Harry wakes up to find Lola and her servant gone, along with his valise! She does leave a note claiming her need was the greater. Uncharacteristically Harry doesn't bear a grudge. There must have been some genuine feeling there, and he does claim her as the most beautiful of his many conquests, he never forgot her either.

In wrapping the story up Flashman explains how he told the story to a young lawyer of his; Hawkins, this was Anthony Hope's real name, and he made it into one of his romances, which sold very well, this of course is how Hope wrote The Prisoner of Zenda, at least that's Flashman's story.

He also said that he met Irma once more. She visited London for Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. Flashman stayed out of her sight, but she had aged well and was still an attractive woman. Carl Gustaf had died some years back. She had her son with her, and he was the spit image of Rudi Starnberg, so Irma may not have been as pure as everyone believed. Flashman thinks Rudi himself perished along with the Germans during a march on Paris.

Bismarck of course went on to become one of history's greatest statesmen and was responsible for the formation of Germany, actions which later led to WW I. Had Bismarck's plan worked out, the course of events may have been advanced a few years, or they may have turned out differently altogether.

Harry's homecoming doesn't create the same sort of stir that his previous one in Flashman did. The Morrisons are still in residence and none too pleased to see him back. Buck's also back at home, although no one seems to think it will be long before he's in rehab again. Elspeth is taking tea with friends, she does wonder what Harry did to his head and why, and asks what he brought her back from Germany.

There are two short appendices. One covers The Prisoner of Zenda, and it was nice to see George MacDonald Fraser acknowledge his inspiration for this book. The other is some more about Lola herself, and she was one of the more remarkable footnote characters in history and a great match for Flashman.

Magician by Raymond E. Feist

The 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels challenge returns! I moved away from this last year when the TBR pile started to reach alarming proportions, not helped by a trip to Worldcon in Reno where books cost about half of what they do in Australia. I decided to shelve the challenge for a while. I always wanted to go back to it, and the new year seemed like the ideal time, so I present to you my review of the 2nd of the F novels: Raymond E. Feist's superlative fantasy epic Magician.

Feist was one of the wave of new epic fantasy writers that emerged in the late 1970's and early 1980's. For the time Magician was quite a tome, these days it would be published as a duology or maybe even a trilogy (I believe it was published in 2 separate volumes in the US; Magician: Apprentice and Magician: Master), the paperback I read was over 800+ pages and that's big for one book back in the early 80's.

At first glance Magician appears to be a pretty standard generic epic fantasy, drawing on the significant legacy left by Professor Tolkien. The land of Midkemia is a pre industrial society, analogous with medieval Europe, even the name evokes comparisons with Tolkien's Middle-earth (which was based on the Norse mythological term for Earth of Midgard), and Midkemia was also populated with rather Tolkienesque elves and dwarves, there was even a treasure loving dragon, not unlike a benevolent blind Smaug. That's largely where the comparisons end, though. There's no quest here for a magical ring or item of power, and the Midkemians aren't battling an all powerful sorceror. There is a magical suit of armour and weapons, although with what they do to their bearer; the former trainee man at arms Tomas, they're more of a curse than a blessing. There's also a sorceror; Macros the Black, but he mostly aids the Midkemians, although his motives for doing much of what he does are not really adequately explained. I actually felt that Macros was based on John Brunner's Traveller in Black, he of the many names, but only one nature. Macros even had an ever present staff, which seemed to amplify his natural magical ability.

The game changer for Magician is Kelewan. Feist was not content to create one world for his epic, he created two. There was a magical rift opened between the world of Midkemia and that of the feudal Japanese influenced world of Kelewan. There was very little Asian influenced fantasy around in the early 80's and giving Kelewan a Japanese influence was a master stroke. For me the scenes in Kelewan that follow the journey of Pug; the orphan from the Midkemian coastal frontier town of Crydee, from his days as a captive slave to become the Kelewanian magician, a Great One known as Milamber, and commanding near godlike power, are amongst the best and most effectively written in the book.

Magician is the story of the Riftwar, the battle between Midkemia and the Kelewanian invaders, who want to take over Midkemia and exploit it's vast natural resources of metal, something that is rare and highly prized in Kelewan. It tells the story as it follows the experiences of Pug and Tomas, best friends who are torn apart by war and follow very different paths in life. Pug becomes the Great One Milamber and Tomas dons magical armour and is in part taken over by the ancient rulers of Midkemia, the Valheru warrior known as Ashen-Shugar, he also marries Queen Aglaranna of Elvandar, Queen of the Elves.

There is also a third story and that is the one of Prince Arutha, the youngest son of Duke Borric ConDoin of Crydee, he's also in line to one day inherit the throne through his father. It is Arutha's story as he fights to keep his world and people free on the field and in the halls of power, he even takes to the seas and the mean streets of Krondor, that introduces two of Magician's most memorable characters; the roguish former pirate Amos Trask and the enterprising young thief known on the streets of Krondor as Jimmy the Hand (Jimmy was popular enough among readers to be the focus of his own books later on).

Magician and the two books that came after it; Silverthorn and A Darkness at Sethanon, are generally referred to as the Riftwar trilogy, although I find Magician self contained enough to be read as a standalone book. The other two really just tie up a few loose ends concerning Pug and Tomas, but cover their own separate story.

Feist does make a few debut novelist mistakes in Magician. At times there's far too much exposition and the book could have been edited more ruthlessly, yet in the introduction to the 1992 edition of Magician, which was reedited by the author to include material that he had to take out of the original published version, he says he removed something like 50,000 words. The other thing that I found a little hard to take were the love scenes and the way they were handled. The dialogue in these was pretty clunky at times and the relationships seemed to move a bit quicker than they should have in relation to the rest of the story, which explained where it was going and how it got there.

Magician is a thoroughly enjoyable fantasy epic, which was rather original for it's time, holds up well even now and stands up to repeated reads, I've lost count of how many times I've actually read it and my copy is rather well thumbed. Tolkien's masterwork is in the same vein when it comes to the Midkemian sections of the text, and Tad Williams homage to Tolkien; Memory, Sorrow and Thorn has that vibe as well. Feist wrote a number of Midkemian related novels, I think the cycle is up to around 30 now, there was also the Empire trilogy co-written with Janny Wurts, which is set on Kelewan, and is outside of Magician the best related work he did in my opinion. Interested readers could also seek out Faerie Tale, a rather Stephen Kingish horror that Feist did in an attempt to break away from Midkemia. It's well regarded now, but didn't seem to sell well enough at the time to allow for more work in a similar vein.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Royal Flash - Chapter 9

Chapter 9 of Royal Flash was so short (10 pages) that it barely qualifies as a chapter.

After taking his leave of the Sons and Carl Gustaf you would think Harry was getting out of Dodge (come to think of it somewhere in his adventures I think Flashman actually did get out of Dodge, maybe if he’d been able to write it George MacDonald Fraser would have tried to pin the saying’s origin on his hero), instead he heads for Strackenz.

Why? One last loving fumble at his little ‘wife’? No…well that does happen, but it wasn’t his reason for heading back into the lion’s den. Aside from sex, there is one other thing that motivates Flashman, and that’s money. Those crown jewels are still there and as long as he still looks like Carl Gustaf and the world in general doesn’t know that he’s not the real article then who’s going to stop him from getting access to them.

After assuring Irma that he’s alive and well, knowing that his double will soon be along to replace him, Harry invents a reason to take off and gives the conscientious guard of the jewels some cock and bull story to get him out of the way, and plunders to his heart’s content. He fills a valise with the collection, it’s large enough that he doesn’t even have to bend the coronets flat to make them fit, and away he runs. Seemingly set for life if he can pull this off.

I’m not really sure why this one exists as a chapter on it’s own, given the length of some of the other chapters this one could have been incorporated. There’s some evidence that Flashman thought his theft out too, even if he’s pursued he doubts that because he gave a false name that he can ever be discovered. As he reflects if they go looking for Thomas Arnold then they will track him down, but good luck to them getting anything from the old headmaster’s grave.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Royal Flash - Chapter 8

Chapter 8 of Royal Flash is another long one and packed full of action. If chapter 7 was bawdy farce, then chapter 8 has Harry buckling on his swash.

Once he’s fallen into the hands of the Sons of the Volsung (the Danish nationalist movement that has captured Flashman, who are as intent on keeping Strackenz in Danish hands as Bismarck is to bring it under German control), he has to lie to stay alive, although he didn’t lie as much as I had expected. He basically gives them the story of how he came to impersonate Carl Gustaf, just changing it subtly to imply that he was an innocent British soldier whose only real crime was to bear a remarkable resemblance to the Danish royal. He also added a wife and child (little golden haired Amelia) to help his cause and changed his name to Thomas Arnold. I’m sure even Flashman found it rather ironic that the only alias he could come up with on short notice was that of a man he both despised and feared.

The Sons swallow the story and Harry’s real ace in the hole is that he knows Carl Gustaf is alive and where he’s being held. The Sons suspected, but they didn’t KNOW. They, mainly driven by Hansen, come up with a mad boys own rescue scheme. Unfortunately for Flashman he’s going to be part of the rescue team. When stripping down for the swim through the Jotunsee into Jotunberg Hansen sees and is impressed by Harry’s collection of war wounds (he has weals on his back from Gul Shah’s torture, a scar on his thigh where his leg was broken at Piper’s Fort and another on his hip where a rifle ball hit him), the wounds all seem to have been gathered in Flashman, which was at the time the only book out, I’ll definitely have to check the texts of Flashman’s Lady and Flashman and the Mountain of Light to see if there were any continuity slip ups, as while those two volumes came out after Royal Flash, they take place in between the 1st 3rd and the final 2 3rds.

Hansen is killed almost as soon as the two men enter Jotunberg. Rudi was waiting and got the Dane with a blade between the shoulders. Flashman was lucky that he too wasn’t killed, and possibly wasn’t because Starnberg has a rather twisted sense of humour and thought it would be amusing to taunt Carl Gustaf with his double. Despite the situation Flashman took a bit of perverse amusement in that both Carl Gustaf and Hansen could tell him from the real thing because the duelling scars were slightly off line, this makes him realise that Bismarck was capable of making a mistake.

Rudi makes an offer to Flashman, as far as he can see Bismarck’s plan is shot and the entire continent is rising up in revolt. It was true, too. 1848 could have very well been named The Year of Revolution. As the world goes it was probably a game changing year in history and laid the logs for the fire that would engulf the world in 1914. In the early years of the 20th century the old soldier and political in Flashman can see the writing on the wall and knows what is going to happen very soon. On a side note Flashman has a cameo in George MacDonald Fraser’s book Mr American, and readers see his reaction to the declaration of WW I. Rudi believes that he and Flashman can kill Carl Gustaf and then have the Englishman play the prince for long enough that the two of them can make a fortune out of it. He doesn’t really outline what he plans to do, but I’d be willing to bet it’s got something to do with the Strackenz’s rather impressive collection of crown jewels. By this stage all Harry wants to do is get the hell out. He manages to get the drop on Starnberg with a wine bottle and tries to make his escape. Before he can do so Rudi recovers and the two men fight it out blade to blade, Flashman is lucky to save his own life and the prince’s, but he does with the rest of the Sons turning up in the nick of time. Starnberg flees and Harry falls into the Jotunsee. Once again he cheats death and survives, even then it takes the word of Carl Gustaf to prevent the Sons from killing him and the chapter ends with him having survived against the odds yet again.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Royal Flash - Chapter 7

After reading chapter 7 of Royal Flash I can see why the film makers took the decision of creating the sort of the film they did. The chapter is very bawdy and somewhat farcical in parts. It's one of the longer chapters I've encountered as well.

Flashman now impersonating the Danish prince Carl Gustaf, is taken to the duchy of Strackenz where he will meet and marry Duchess Irma. On the way his true colours assert themselves during a presentation from one of the local boarding schools. The school has a number of well turned out students who can recite Greek for his supposed entertainment. Flashman spies a surly lout who he sees as the school's version of his younger self and asks for that boy to recite. Of course he makes a hash of it and Flashman does his level best to ensure that the boy will be beaten following his departure. He leaves well pleased with himself. Detestable man.

Flashman certainly likes the look of Irma. She's young (19) and even more beautiful than her portrait suggested, but she is very cold and has no conversational skills. Flashman does't take to her, it would be hard to, he sees her as spoiled and arrogant, to a certain extent she probably is, but I believe most of it is due to her upbringing and the situation she's in. I believe Flashman mistook fear for arrogance.

He sizes up the crown jewels of Strackenz and like any good British soldier works out how he may be best able to make off with them if given the opportunity. He also notices that Starnberg is doing the same. A man after Flashman's own heart. Courage aside they're cut from the same cloth.

The news that one of Carl Gustaf's oldest friends; Erik Hansen, will be unexpectedly attending the wedding throws Flashman into a panic. Flashman's minders assure him that he won't have time to be unmasked, and if he is Rudi will take steps (kill Hansen) to assure that the plan doesn't come unstuck. He's told to say 'Erik, old friend, where did you spring from?" when one of his co conspirators whispers Hansen in his ear. He messes it up, crying something like: 'Erik, old friend, this is the most springing surprise of my happy day!', but fortunately it doesn't give the game away, or at least doesn't seem to. An uninvited guest at the wedding is the revolutionary Karl Marx, or at least George MacDonald Fraser in his notes at the back of the book believes that the character protesting outside after the ceremony is the Father of Communism judging by the description Flashman provides.

After the wedding the happy couple, along with Starnberg and De Gautet, go to the royal hunting lodge in Strelhow. When Flashman performs his husbandly duty with Irma she is initially petrified with fear, but very soon warms to the task and becomes near insatiable in bed. Flashman naturally attributes this to his skill in bed, although possibly he awakened something dormant in the sheltered young woman. He also sings her a nursery rhyme in English to settle her, he doesn't think she paid any attention, but Fraser in the notes points out that the rhyme first appeared in German after the wedding, so she may have paid more attention than Harry thought at the time.

Flashman develops a friendship with De Gautet during the stay at the hunting lodge, largely born of the fact that both men have a good eye for horseflesh and are excellent riders. Flashman puts De Gautet as almost his equal which puts him up there with the Cheyenne, who Harry in an allusion to another adventure (possibly Flashman and the Redskins) judges as the best riders he's seen. He and the German go riding and De Gautet tries to kill him. Flashman in sheer desperation fights him off and uses the benefits of a British public school education to torture Bismarck's real plan out of the swordsman. The statesman had never intended to pay Flashman, he had always been going to kill him, and then tell everyone he was a British spy and when the region is plunged into revolution use the Prussian army to intervene and thus bring everyone under German rule. The real Carl Gustaf is being held in the dungeons of the old Strackenzian royal castle of Jotunberg, he never had venereal disease, and he and his body will be disposed of once Bismarck has word that Flashman is dead.

Flashman pushes De Gautet off a cliff and does what Harry Flashman does best - run for his life! He shelters at a farm house with the elderly farmer and his daughter and is delivered to a bunch of capable looking types, who are to Flashman's horror led by Erik Hansen. They quickly work out he's not the real Carl Gustaf and Harry is once again going to have to lie through his teeth to save his own worthless hide.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Royal Flash - Chapter 6

Bismarck's nefarious plan and the real reason for fitting up Flashman come to light in chapter 6 of Royal Flash.

Flashman hasn't forgotten the beating he engineered John Gully to hand out to the Prussian, and neither has Bismarck, despite the intervening 4 years, and he knows the noble's presence doesn't bode well for him, but he predictably decides to bluster it out. It has no effect. He's on Bismarck's home turf and surrounded by 4 of his henchmen, all of whom look remarkably capable.

Bismarck then explains why he wants Flashman. Even then Bismarck was working towards building a German Empire. A lot of turning uniting the German states and turning Prussia into Germany hinged on the small provinces of Schelswig and Holstein. The states were nominally controlled by Denmark, but the population was largely German. This created the Schleswig-Holstein question. I was aware of the question before I read the book. It was something my wonderful 11th grade history teacher; Mr French, explained in Modern History. I don't know if any of the rest of the class even listened, or if any of them cared after the class or remembered it, but I was a bit of a history buff and it did interest me. I never understood it entirely and I doubt even Mr French did. Flashman explains it thus:

Nobody has ever got to the bottom of it - indeed Palmerston (British Prime Minister Palmerston, he was a sort of friend of Flashman's and one of the few politicians Harry actually seems to admire) once said that only three people understood it: one was Pam himself, and he had forgotten it, another was a famous statesman, and he was dead, and the third was a German professor, and he had gone mad thinking about it.

Considering how much Bismarck had to do with the question I would have thought he also understood it, possibly he's the famous statesman, although I would have thought Flashman would have just said so if that was the case.

Now what exactly does Captain Harry Flashman have to do with it all? There's a small duchy on the edge of Holstein called Strackenz (Strackenz does not exist, it's an entirely fictional place). If it were to erupt into unrest things could ruin Bismarck's plans. To that end he's managed to arrange for the marriage of the beautiful young Duchess Irma of Strackenz to the nephew of King Christian of Denmark, Prince Carl Gustaf, who is a Dane, according to Bismarck sympathetic to the Prussian's plans. Why does this concern Flashman? Flashman asked the same question.

When Bismarck had wondered why Flashman looked familiar four years previously it was because of Carl Gustaf. The Danish prince is a dead ringer for Flashman, There are only two significant differences, Carl Gustaf is bald and clean shaven and he bears two duelling scars on his face earned at Heidelberg. Bismarck refers to duelling as drinking from the soup plate of honour, in reference to bowl like hilt of the schalger blades used for duelling.

According to Bismarck, Carl Gustaf has contracted gonnorhea, and will not be able to marry the Duchess in the six weeks time that the wedding has been planned for. Flashman actually finds the concept of a royal contracting as he puts it 'a dose of the clap' highly amusing, which is very indicative of his character, although it did make me wonder why with all his partners Flashman himself never got venereal disease, I can't recall him ever mentioning it.

The six weeks gives Bismarck and his cohorts enough time to turn Flashman into Carl Gustaf, teach him the language, the prince's history and groom him physically as well as mentally. Flashman has a habit of scratching his rear end when thinking, as royalty do not 'claw at the their backsides' as Bersonin tells Harry. For someone who learns as many languages as Flashman does he has an interesting relationship with Danish. He learns it. but he doesn't like it and never thinks in it, which for Flashman is odd.

It is with the schlager scars that Bismarck has the most fun, this is his revenge on Harry for the boxing incident with Gully. One way or other other Harry will get scars. One way is to hold him down and have Kraftstein cut them into his face and the other is to face De Gautet, a master of the blade, and have him do it the honourable way. Flashman opts for the latter and actually manages to inflict a minor wound on the swordsman by breaking the rules and lunging after the second scar is inflicted. Strangely enough the whole incident only reinforces Harry's hero reputation amongst Bismarck and his henchmen.

Although Bismarck is offering 10,000 pounds for this service and claims that after marrying Irma they'll wait for a month or so and then perform a switch of Harry for the Carl Gustaf with no one any the wiser Flashman's been in too many of these sorts of situations to totally buy it. He knows what he'd do and he wouldn't honour the agreement. Sadly enough Flashman holds others up to his own scant moral code and he's very often correct.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Royal Flash - Chapter 5

In the 5th chapter of Royal Flash, Harry is on his way to the continent, for a brief time he employs a German by the name of Helmuth to be a sort of manservant, but really to help him learn German. Harry doesn’t ever learn a language in the conventional way, he just listens to it around him and tends to pick it up.

Flashman actually confesses to liking the German people and if he wasn't an Englishman he would want to be a German. This is largely based on an observation that because of their liking for order people know their place. Of course Flashman would like this as long as he was still of the ruling class.

He’s met in Bavaria by Rudi von Starnberg. Rudi is very like Flashman himself, with one major difference, his reckless bravery isn’t a front, although like many others before and since him Starnberg believes Harry’s reputation. If they hadn’t been on opposite sides the two men may have become good friends, because they both shared a fairly skewed moral compass. The character of Rudi is based on Rupert of Hentzau from Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda, that made me wonder if Flashman isn’t in fact some sort of subversion of the swashbuckling hero and may also be based on Hope’s hero. Rudi conducts Flashman to Lola’s house, although he remarks that in both appearance and appointment it’s more palace than house.

The house aside Lola has done well for herself, she even seems to have gathered an army of supporters, and when I say army I do mean that in the military sense. Although the former dancer acknowledges her former lover’s presence she doesn’t have a great deal to do with him either at the performance/musical recital or the dinner. Flashman claims to have met Richard Wagner at the function (although George MacDonald Fraser’s notes at the back point out that there’s no evidence to suggest that the composer was in Bavaria at the time, then again there’s also no evidence to suggest that he wasn’t), and held forth the opinion that British marching song British Grenadiers and the hunting ditty Drink Puppy Drink (this is the first mention of the nonsensical hunting song, it’s mentioned frequently from here on in. It seems to be the only song Harry knows, and he was forever humming it, to the extent that Elspeth affectionately named it ‘Harry’s Song’) were better than any opera he had ever encountered.

Flashman gets as Hughes put it ‘beastly drunk’ and is led into a room by Lola, she disappears and he falls into a drunken stupor. He comes to being pawed at and undressed by an overweight noblewoman he had encountered at the earlier dinner; the Baroness Pechman. As she is quite insistent Harry eventually relents and starts having s with her. The door then opens to admit Rudi and two uniformed gentleman. When Flashman protests he is knocked unconscious, and wakes up in the local police station in a cell. Rudi and a lawyer in his employ set things out in front of the British adventurer. What he was doing with Pechman was under Bavarian law illegal, and they can lock him up for life if they so wish. If he puts himself in von Starnberg’s custody and agrees to do whatever he’s got planned then the entire incident will be swept under the carpet and forgotten about. Between a rock and a hard place Flashman reluctantly agrees and is transferred to a forbidding castle a good distance from Munich.

At the castle he is introduced to three of Starnbergs colleagues; Kraftstein, a big beefy Prussian, De Gautet, a tall, lean sinister looking character, and Bersonin, stocky, bald and ugly. He doesn't know this at the time, but they're his guards and will also become his teachers, then he sees the man who makes his heart stop and wonder what exactly he’s managed to get himself into this time: Otto von Bismarck.

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Midnight Riot (published as Rivers of London in the UK, which is a far more apt title to my way of thinking) is the debut novel by former Doctor Who scriptwriter Ben Aaronovitch.

My wife got this book and it’s sequel (Moon Over Soho) months ago and had been raving about it. I only just got around to reading it, and am kicking myself for not making time for it earlier, because it was an excellent story, with plenty of humour, pop culture references and clever subversion of a number of urban fantasy tropes.

For an urban fantasy Midnight Riot is a bit different in a number of ways, firstly it’s not set in the US, it has a male protagonist and he’s biracial.

Peter Grant is a uniformed London cop coming to the end of his mandatory two year period in uniform and is hoping to be transferred to a plainclothes division where he can do some ‘real’ policing, actually catch criminals rather than do data entry, attend minor disturbances and stand guard around crime scenes. That is until he happens to meet Nicholas Wallpenny a witness to an unusual murder. Unusual in that the victim’s head appeared to have been knocked off the body. Unfortunately for Peter, Nicholas Wallpenny is not your standard witness…he’s a ghost. I loved that Peter’s permanently perky partner, and possible love interest; Leslie Mays, doesn’t just dismiss Peter as mad when he tells her about Wallpenny, but actively helps him try and pursue that particular lead in the case. Of course then Peter meets Inspector Nightingale, Britain’s last wizard, and his life is turned upside down.

I’ve never lived in London, but I get the sense that Ben Aaronovitch’s descriptions of the cities geography, in particular it’s many waterways, was spot on. The concept that the rivers themselves have magical beings attached to them, which manifest as normal citizens was intriguing and amusing. The bigger the river, the more powerful the ‘person’. Mother and Father Thames (no relation) are the king pins. Peter and Nightingale soon realise that to get anywhere with their investigation they’ll have to deal with the rivers and their families. This brings the delightful Beverley Brook into the story as a sort of de facto deputy. The post riot scene where she’s busted and told off by her big sister; Fleet, is priceless and a highlight for me.

The writer also appears to have done a good deal of research into the London police force as the novel displays a great deal of knowledge about police procedures and hierachies. There are also odd little excursions into British history, which deal with everything from Sir Isaac Newton (the greatest British wizard) and the origins of Punch and Judy. I know I’ll never look at the nasty little puppet show the same way again after reading Midnight Riot.

The big reveal of the book was well hidden and I certainly never saw it coming, so much so that I let out a gasp of disbelief when I read it. The novel starts out rather breezily in the style of some of more recent amusing British novelists, but progressively turns darker, although it never loses it’s humour or drive at any point. It’s a great debut and I’ll be looking for the name Ben Aaronovitch from now on.

The whole cast of characters: Peter, Nightingale, Leslie, Beverley, Mama Thames, Lady Tyburn and of course Nightingale’s unforgettable maid Molly, were fascinating and well drawn. There are still mysteries around Nightingale (exactly how old is he?) and Molly, I’m still not sure exactly what she is, so plenty of room for Aaronovitch to move. The sequel Moon Over Soho is out and a third book is planned.

Royal Flash - Chapter 4

The 4th chapter of Royal Flash is where the chronology of the books became complicated. At the end of chapter 3 it was 1843. By the time chapter 4 begins it's 1847. Flashman has been on 4 years worth of adventures, but these weren't covered until book 6 (Flashman's Lady) and book 9 (Flashman and the Mountain of Light). Flashman makes no allusions to the events in Flashman's Lady, but he does obliquely reference Flashman and the Mountain of Light, by saying that he'd managed to get some money of his own in his last escapade before arriving back home in 1847. Royal Flash was written in 1970, and Mountain of Light came out in 1990. I really do wonder how far George MacDonald Fraser thought ahead.

To his horror Flashman finds out that his in-laws have moved in, in his absence and Buck is off at a sanatorium drying out, the indications is that this is a pretty regular thing for Buck Flashman, as he had become an alcoholic. There's no mention of Judy, so I assume she didn't meet up to the standards of the pious Morrisons and was sent packing, whether or not Elspeth liked having her around. One of the few loose ends that was never tied up.

Flashman's exchanges with Morrison never fail to amuse. The two of them cannot stand each other and they don't hide it. It makes for some very amusing and snarky banter as the two men snipe at each other continually. The two of them actually need each other. Harry can't survive without Morrison's money and Morrison likes the entry to high society that Harry's name and reputation give him.

During a bout of coitus with Elspeth, part of the reason they get along so well and have remained together for so long is that Harry's rarely at home, so doesn't become irritated by Elspeth's seeming empty headedness or the high snobbery she developed not long after marrying and moving away from Scotland, Elspeth is also good in bed, Flashman's darling wife admits that her parents want to get their two other daughters; Agnes and Grizel married, and to quality. Elspeth reasons that she did it, and they're wealthy girls through their father and well educated so why shouldn't they. Flashman points out that neither of her unmarried sisters is anywhere near as attractive as she is, although Elspeth does say that Grizel is really pretty. I can't remember what became of Agnes, but I think readers found out that Grizel did marry fairly well in Flashman's Lady.

Flashman knows that living in a house containing his in-laws while depending entirely on them for funds (what he made in the intervening years won't take him long to go through) will drive him mad so gets Uncle Bindley to seek him a position that pays tolerably well. Whilst this is happening he receives a flowery letter from a Bavarian Countess. Flashman has never been to Bavaria, he may have bedded a countess, but the name doesn't ring any bells and he was unlikely to have had the opportunity to deflower a Bavarian noblewoman. However she is promising to give him money for travelling and more when she sees him.

Harry goes to see the woman's London based attorneys and discovers that the countess is in fact Lola Montez. While Flashman was adventuring his old lover became the consort of King Ludwig (commonly known these days as Mad King Ludwig) of Bavaria. She got given a title by her lover. Flashman is intrigued and he wants the money, so we'll soon be seeing Flashy let loose on the women of the continent.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Hafey Years by Elliot Cartledge

The last few Christmasses I’ve had football books on my wish list, specifically those that relate to the Richmond Football Club in some way, shape or form, and this year was no exception. Santa had a copy of The Hafey Years by journalist and fellow Richmond tragic Elliot Cartledge in his sack for me.

To bring anyone who isn’t aware up to speed: between the years of 1966 and 1976 the Richmond Football Club was coached by former player Tommy Hafey. While Hafey was a modestly talented player, he was a revolutionary coach with an extraordinary ability of getting players to give their utmost, and in his ten years at the helm of the Tigers he delivered 4 Premierships, including the back to back efforts of the 1973 and 74 seasons. Although Richmond did win the 1980 flag, beating arch rival Collingwood by what was then a record winning margin, the years since Tommy Hafey’s departure have been pretty barren.

The book is written from an unashamedly Richmond viewpoint, although it does not attempt to paint a rose coloured picture of anyone involved with the club at the time. Players and officials are human and they have their strengths and their weaknesses. In the case of legendary administrator Graeme Richmond, his strength and weaknesses are often one and the same. While GR had a lot to do with the success enjoyed by the Tigers during the Hafey Years, he was also largely responsible for the team’s fall from grace; a pit they are still struggling to climb out of.

Having lived through the Hafey era, although being a kid during all of it my memories are fairly incomplete, the book was a trip down memory lane for me. Even the players and games I don’t recall well or at all I have memories of my parents, in particular my father, speaking fondly about. It’s a time that many of us, who are desperate to see the team succeed again often relive or long to return to, and Cartledge’s book with it’s quarter by quarter descriptions of the Premiership games, interviews with the players, officials and in some cases the opposition, certainly did that for me, and probably will for many other supporters.

The research in the book is considerable and sheds light on some incidents I had heard of, but been unaware of the full circumstances of. Readers can come to understand people like the often frustrating and eternally enigmatic Billy Barrott or the mercurially talented, but volatile Neil Balme. I even gained more of an insight into the driven Kevin Sheedy, who has been in the media spotlight as a coach and outspoken part of the game ever since he hung up his boots in the late 1970’s.

Many of the names in The Hafey Years are spoken with a hushed reverence by Richmond supporters: Paddy Guinane, Fred Swift, Roger Dean, Royce Hart, Kevin Bartlett, Dick Clay, even the backroom power broker Graeme Richmond and Hafey himself. The book pulls no punches and examines the reasons for the club’s success and why it eventually fell apart.

One thing I was struck by when reading was the similarity with the circumstances of the club just prior to Hafey’s arrival as coach and now. It gives me hope that things are finally turning around and that the Tigers are on the track to some onfield success at long last.

Fans and students of the game will get something out of The Hafey Years, regardless of club affiliation, but the book was written by and for Richmond supporters. If you were fortunate enough to see the club during all or some of the Hafey years then you will love reliving that golden period when the Tigers ruled the AFL (VFL as it was then) jungle. If you’re a supporter who did not see the powerful Richmond of the late 1960’s and 70’s then you’ll still get a smile from The Hafey Years as it will remind you why you follow the Tigers and exactly what the club is like when it’s up and about.

Any Richmond supporter will find The Hafey Years a fascinating and enjoyable experience. One of the best descriptions of the team and it’s success that I’ve been privileged enough to read.

Royal Flash - Chapter 3

The third chapter of Royal Flash covers the 3rd member of the unholy trio (Flashman, Bismarck and Montez). Harry and Elspeth are still trading on Harry's laurels from Afghanistan, but it is starting to wear thin and Harry has had Uncle Bindley put the feelers out to obtain a position befitting a hero of the Lion of Kabul's status. Harry will of course ensure that any position he accepts will be as far from combat as is possible. Whilst doing this he spends his time gadding about the city and by chance happens to see an advertisement for an exotic Spanish dancer calling herself Lola Montez. Harry goes to see her rehearsing and is surprised to see that she is none other than his former bed partner Rosanna James!

Harry Flashman is not a good person to have as an enemy and the way he and Lola parted (she threw a chamberpot at him) still rankles. He decides to ruin her new career. He could of course expose her as a fraud himself, but he has another person in mind to do the deed. When they were together Lola mentioned another old lover; the current Lord Ranelagh.

Flashman pays Ranelagh a visit and is not totally unsurprised to find him a rather unpleasant sort. Ranelagh is the living embodiment of the wealthy, titled mid 19th century nobility. Fraser rarely misses an opportunity to skewer the ruling class of the time, he's generally accurate, too. Flashman and Ranelagh don't like each other, but they're united in their mutual dislike of the Irish officer's wife, the former Mrs Betsy James. What Flashman plans to have Ranelagh do is pure vindictiveness and it rams home the point that he is a throughly objectionable character.

Lola's maiden performance is a disaster, not because of her dancing (Flashman is captivated, but reports from the time list her as only a modestly talented dancer), but because during her second dance Ranelagh calls her out as a fraud and she is forced to flee first the theatre, and then England altogether. This was something Fraser did regularly throughout the memoirs, and that is have his fictional anti-hero act as the catalyst for a very real incident. There are further reports of Lola Montez, most of which sound too fantastical to be entirely true. It struck me that Lola was the 19th century equivalent of today's internet celebrities. Another Flashman trait is exposed towards the end of the chapter. One of Lola's very real lovers was the composer Franz Liszt. Flashman is a dreadful name dropper, and he casually mentions that he and Liszt met and compared notes about their famous lover. While Flashman said Lola used to hit him with a hairbrush during sex to encourage him, she used a dog whip on Liszt, and he was rather a frail fellow.

While the chapter is entertaining I'm not sure it was entirely necessary. Readers were aware that Lola Montex and Flashman parted on bad terms, we were also aware of Harry's failings and his sheer vindictiveness. George MacDonald Fraser seemed to have a fascination for the scandals of the nobility of the 19th century and he liked to portray them in all their messy glory. This is an example of that little indulgence. In Chapter Four the real story behind Royal Flash should begin as the stage has now been set.

Royal Flash - Chapter 2

Flashman is out and doing what he does best in the second chapter of Royal Flash, having fun with his well heeled male companions and doing so whilst spending his someone else's money (in this case that of his father-in-law Morrison, courtesy of his doting and seemingly clueless wife Elspeth). Harry and his cronies have gone up the country to watch a boxing match and have a drunken weekend, when one of the cronies turns up with Bismarck in tow.

Bismarck and Flashman renew acquaintances and it’s obvious that the Prussian nobleman has not forgotten how the Englishman stole his carriage and date not so long ago. The sniping starts almost immediately. In the presence of friends and at home, it’s hard for Bismarck to really score points off Flashman, he’s a war hero and he’s got a credibility that Bismarck lacks.

Hostilities between the two reaches boiling point after a steeplechase. Flashman isn’t just a naturally gifted rider, he’s extremely proud of it and rarely ever beaten. Bismarck manages to do so in the steeplechase. Flashman contends that he won the race because he neglected to give way as he should have. It’s rather a moot point, because steeplechasing really didn’t have any rules, and it’s highly amusing to see a cheat like Flashman get some of his own medicine and then howl about it.

It’s rare that any one gets the better of Harry Flashman without paying dearly for it, and Otto von Bismarck is no exception. They attend a boxing match and while Bismarck appears to enjoy the spectacle he compares it unfavourably on every score with ‘schlagering’ (schlagers being the swords Prussians preferred to duel with). Seeing an opportunity Harry dives in and starts to goad Bismarck. Harry often talks about his 4 talents, but he never mentions the 5th, and that’s the ability to start a fight. In that respect Harry reminds of the Asterix villain Tortuous Convovulus from Asterix and the Roman Agent. They could both start a fight in an empty room.

Harry keeps needling until he manages to get former bare knuckle boxing champion turned member of the gentry; John Gully to take on Bismarck in an exhibition of skilled ‘milling’ as boxing was known then. It ends better than Flashman could ever have hoped for with Bismarck bloodied and battered by the ageing former champion. Gully is another of those extraordinary footnote people in history that George MacDonald Fraser kept turning up in the books. It’s not the first or the last time Flashman mentions boxing, he’s not much good at it himself, but he enjoys watching it, and even mentions that he was in attendance in 1882 for a match in the US involving the legendary John L. Sullivan. Exactly why he was there I don’t think has ever been covered in the books that were published. I suspect Fraser himself was appreciative of boxing, particularly the history of the sport. He wrote a book called Black Ajax, about a former slave from the US trying to become a champion in the British circuit of the late 18th century. Harry’s father Buck Flashman makes a cameo in the book.

One interesting thing about Bismarck and Harry in this chapter is that Bismarck is positive that he’s met or seen Flashman before, but as Harry has never visited what would become Germany and this is the Prussian’s first visit to England this seems unlikely. Their paths couldn’t have crossed on the subcontinent or in Afghanistan either as Bismarck was never there. Flashman sees it as being of little import, but it vexes Bismarck and Harry should take greater note of it as it will have a major bearing on his future. Not to mention that he’s number one on Bismarck’s people to be revenged upon list after the run in with Gully.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Royal Flash - Chapter 1

Before getting into the opening chapter of Royal Flash I'll have some words about the introductions and the cover. The cover for the 1999 paperback edition shows Flashman figged out as a royal complete with ermine lined cloak and sceptre. He wears his trademark smug smile under his magnificent calvary whiskers. There's no girl accompanying him on the cover, as is generally the case. In the background there's some of battle with cannons and castles.

In his explanatory note George MacDonald Fraser informs readers that Royal Flash takes place over two separate periods covering some months in 1842 - 43, and then in 1847 - 48. This is where the chronology started to move away. There's an indication that Flashman does cover the missing period elsewhere in his memoirs, but readers had to wait until book 6 (Flashman's Lady) and book 9 (Flashman and the Mountain of Light) to find out what the hero was doing between 1843 and 1847.

Right from the start of the opening chapter Flashman references other packets of his adventures, saying that if he really was the hero everyone supposed him to be, or even a half decent soldier (I think he's being a bit hard on himself there, although he wasn't much use at the front he does show a great grasp of strategy throughout the books and would have made a decent commander if he hadn't been continually forced to live up to his reckless hero reputation) then Lee would have won the Battle of Gettysburg and maybe even captured Washington. This is a reference to General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Forces during the American Civil War, and it is obvious that Flashman was also involved in that conflict as well as others throughout the world.

The narrative that the book covers begins in 1842 when Flashman is enjoying the laurels he won in the First Afghan War and raising hell with his old friend from Rugby: Speedicut. At this stage Harry is still licking his wounds from the fact that he believes Elspeth is regularly cheating on him, so gets his own back by doing the same to her. Mind you he's still never proved that Elspeth actually has ever cheated on him.

Harry's words about how things were back in the early 1840's running with the young blades tell the readers that he has a great deal of affection for the period, and is still bitter that Queen Victoria and her 'poker-backed' husband smothered the old ways with a lot of pious hypocrisy.

Whilst spending time in a gambling hell it is raided, and Flashman is nearly caught red handed. Speedicut holds off the traps while Flashman makes a getaway.

He takes refuge in a carriage hired by a beautiful woman called Marie Elizabeth Rosanna James (she would later be known to the world as Lola Montez) and a teutonic type who Flashman is informed is Otto von Bismarck, also soon to be better known to the world at large. He annoys Bismarck and makes off with his date. He has a torrid affair with Rosanna which also involves her using a hairbrush during sex to exhort her companions to greater efforts. He does later say that he cannot look at a hairbrush without thinking of his former lover. The meeting with the woman who would become known as Lola Montez is an interesting one in the books in general. Flashman describes her as THE loveliest girl he has ever seen in his life, now when you consider the many women Flashman has met and bedded, including his lovely wife Elspeth, that's quite a statement. Aside from Elspeth, Flashman has probably only ever fallen in love with two women, Lola Montez is one of them. The chapter ends with Flashman fleeing a greatly enraged Rosanna after refusing to come up to the mark when she was feeling amorous, as she very often did. He's made himself two dangerous enemies, and that's just the first chapter!