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GMacF Will Be Spinning In His Grave
on 11 July 2015
There is always an element of risk involved in reviving a well-loved franchise. Fans of the original will inevitably make comparisons and if the revival is found wanting they will not be merciful. I was a fan of the original series of books.
For those of you unfamiliar with the original Flashman novels, the late George MacDonald Fraser (hereafter referred to as GMacF) took the character of the bullying Harry Flashman from the Victorian novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, turned the schoolboy into an adult and then placed him in a series of highly perilous adventures that spanned over 60 years. Flashman was a coward, a bully, a braggart, a liar and a womaniser and how we fans loved to see him face torture, death and hardship in every novel.
In this revival, titled Flashman And The Sea Wolf, Robert Brightwell has taken an equally fictitious uncle of Harry, Thomas Flashman, placed him in 1800 in the early years of the Napoleonic wars and then tried to do with Thomas what GMacF did with Harry.
The first issue I had with this was that Thomas is just too nice. While Brightwell claims that Thomas is every bit as cowardly, bullying etc as Harry he comes across as a nice guy, though he is still a womaniser. Towards the climax of this book, as the enemy ships approach and he is facing almost certain death, Thomas sits and writes letters home for all the sailors who can’t read and write. Harry Flashman would have damned their eyes and sent them packing while he tried to find somewhere safe to hide.
And there we have the second problem. Every word that Harry Flashman spoke felt authentic; straight from the Victorian era. I hoped, therefore, that there would be a strong whiff of the Regency Dandy about Thomas, but he sounded more like he came from 21st century Surrey. This lack of authenticity immediately detracted from the narrative. Ben Elton and Richard Curtis did a far better job on the Regency language with Blackadder the Third and that was a TV comedy!
I was also slightly suspicious of the historical accuracy of the story. GMacF was punctilious in his research, but I didn’t get that same sense from this book. At the end of the book Brightwell does cite several sources for his historical information, but I got the feeling that most of his information was gleaned second hand. Is this important? Probably not, but when someone tells me something really happened I like to feel that they read the first-hand accounts of the people who were there, not the Wickipedia entry. Again I can only compare this with the GMacF books, which were littered with references, which in the Brightwell book seemed to be more notable by their absence.
The plot is set around a ploy by the British to try to lure the Spanish fleet out of its ports so that it can be attacked and sunk. Flashman is tasked by a British spymaster to carry a secret message to British agents in Spain who will feed false information to the Spanish to suggest that the blockading British fleet has got fed up and gone home. Unfortunately London appears to be riddled with foreign spies (no change there then) and Flashman walks into a trap from which he must be rescued. This plot takes up about the first third of the book, after which Flashman spends a lot of time at sea with a real life Royal Navy adventurer by the name of Thomas Cochrane, who does his best to get Flashman killed; unintentionally of course. As there are currently four sequels to this book it can be no secret that Thomas survives these efforts.
This is all very familiar to those who have read the original books, where a series of real life Victorian adventurers were credited with trying to get Harry Flashman killed in various inventive ways.
While Thomas isn’t exactly heroic he is far braver than his nephew Harry and is probably typical of how most of us would fare in similar circumstances.
The book is reasonably well paced and the writing style isn’t bad, even though it lacks an authentic feel. However, the book could have done with a bit more care when it came to copy editing. I spotted several glaring errors which no professional publisher would have tolerated.
Did I enjoy the book? Well, in the end I felt like someone who had been promised a full Sunday roast but was served with a bowl of cornflakes. It was OK, but not satisfying. Would I buy the next book in the series? Actually I probably would. This one was light and easy to read, quite fun in its own way and well suited for reading poolside or on a long haul flight. However, my expectations will be lower, which may be a good thing.
Did this book do justice to the memory of George MacDonald Fraser? No.