Sunday, March 25, 2012

Flashman at the Charge - Chapter 10

As a guest and soon blood brother of Yakub Beg, Flashman is treated considerably better by his Tajik ally than he ever was by Ignatieff. Beg’s stronghold of Kokhand is actually quite nice as described by Flashman, and he feels rather at home there. Beg becomes his blood brother, a ritual he was already familiar with having experienced it once before with Ilderim Khan in Flashman. He is free to pass his time with Izzat Kutebar, another scoundrel Flashman enjoys the company of. He actually muses that if things had been different Kutebar and Pencherjevsky would have been great friends. I liked Kutebar as a character, at one point he speaks about the desirability of a Tashkent melon, a delicacy about which it is said the Caliph would give his entire harem for. Kutebar is less extravagant, he would offer 5 or 6 of his best slave girls, but only if it were a very good melon.

What Flashman really wants is to be allowed to get into Afghanistan and then find his way to a British command post either in Afghanistan or Northern India. He even has an amusing little fantasy about delivering the much needed news to high command, it proving to be the saviour of the empire and he winds up with a knighthood out of it, and manages to put more than a little mud on East’s reputation for leaving him behind as well. Harry really wants a knighthood, the Who’s Who at the start of the books shows that he eventually gets one, but this is when he starts to want one. I don’t know if this was because his wife had a baronetcy that her miserly father bought for her and he wanted to equal it, or whether he just desires glory and as much of it as he can get.

He winds up sitting in Yakub Beg’s war councils and this is where the Silk One becomes important. She’s a great character. It’s debatable as to whether she was real or not. It’s highly likely that she was, but she’s also greatly fictionalised. She’s the daughter of a Chinese warlord called Ko Dali, so she is also often referred to as Ko Dali’s daughter. Her features betray her Mongol heritage, although many of the people in that part of Central Asia (modern day Uzbekistan) have some sort of Mongol blood as the entire area was once part of Genghis Khan’s empire. She spends her time in the councils playing with a Persian kitten, and offering unasked for advice as she carries on a conversation with the kitten. She’s the one who comes up with the plan to invade the Russian camp and use some of their Congreve rockets to blow up the arriving powder boats, thus delaying the Russian invasion. The Congreves are where Flashman comes in. He knows about them, he spent time in ordnance before being sent to the Crimea and knows how to use them, anyone can do it, but Flashman has acquired expertise and the whole venture will be more successful with that. Harry being Harry tries his best to weasel out of it and because of the debt Beg and Kutebar owe him they’ll let him out of it, not so the Silk One.

She invites Harry to tea with her and seduces him. The thing with the kitten is priceless, she talks to the animal all the time, never calls it the same thing twice: it is ‘little cruelty’, ‘butcher of tiny mice’, ‘wanton of the walls’ and so on. It’s actually rather reminiscent of Gail Carriger’s urbane Victorian vampire Lord Akeldama in her Parasol Protectorate and the various appellations he has for that series’ heroine Alexia Tarabotti/Maccon. After the love making the Silk One offers Flashman kefir (a fermented milk drink) and he rather enjoys it, including the unusual musky taste. He leaves the room feeling a new man, somehow braver, more reckless.

Harry says that the Silk One intimidates him, he claims that strong women do that. I found this a little at odds with what readers know of him in the 3 books so far. Lola Montez; one of the loves of his life, is a strong woman, Cassie; the escaped slave in Flash for Freedom, had no problems cutting a man’s throat to get free, even Elspeth is in her own way a very strong lady, not that Harry ever recognises or acknowledges it. I guess they’re a little different to Ko Dali’s daughter in that they won’t be wielding a sword or horseback or leading a death or glory rescue attempt, but they are strong ladies in that mould. I could have read an entire book about the Silk One, hopefully someone will write one about a similar character, she shares a lot in common with George R.R Martin’s heroine Daenaerys Stormborn Targaryen (Martin is a Flashman fan, so it’s possible she the Silk One helped him form the character of Dany). Fraser has a great deal of affection for these little known footnote characters in history and it would have been wonderful to see him do more on Yakub Beg, Izzat Kutebar and the mysterious Silk One, we do have to feel privileged for what we get in Flashman at the Charge, though.

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