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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
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I first became aware of Josiah Harlan through the fantastic "Flashman and the Mountain of Light" (and if you haven't read that then you must) and I've always wanted to know more about him. So it was a joy to hear that this book had been written. Harlan's life is even more fascinating and incredible than I had dared to imagine after his appearance in "Flashman" - an American Quaker who conned his way to becoming a surgeon for the East India Company, then decided to invade Afghanistan on behalf of its exiled king. He ended up as a not-so-minor potentate in the wilds of Central Asia, which is the part of his background that makes him the obvious candidate as the inspiration for Kipling's "Man Who Would Be King".
Ben Macintyre writes beautifully, and he manages to evoke the landscape and the time wonderfully. His style is inclusive, and his humorous asides are no distraction - if anything they enhance the book. In fact, even if you aren't particularly interested in Josiah Harlan I would still recommend it for Macintyre's writing.
I generally don't like to write a review without at least one little gripe. Unfortunately my one and only gripe for this book is very, very small indeed - when describing part of Alexander the great's campaign he says that Alexander defeated Darius the Great. He didn't - Darius The Great was an earlier Persian king. There, gripe over - and pretty insignificant it was, too, eh?
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on 19 January 2005
Like the previous reviewer, I first heard of Josiah Harlan via George MacDonald-Fraser's Flashman and the Mountain of Light and was intrigued by both him and Alexander Gardner. Having been unable to all but the most rudiment information about either individual I was extremely pleased to discover this book by accident whilst browsing on this website.
There is not much more I can add that has not been mentioned already in the previous reviews - just that if you have any interest in MacDonald-Fraser, Kipling or Colonial India in general then this is a must-read book.
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VINE VOICEon 28 September 2010
The True Story of The Man who would be King, says the subtitle; the qualification is important, for without it the reader might regard this as a wonderful piece of picaresque fiction.

Josiah Harland is seen as the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's Kim, though with a back story that might have been found in Mark Twain. Having set out from Pennsylvania in November 1827 to visit the dark areas of central Asia, Josiah learns he has been dumped by his fiancée and decides to stay on. Twenty years and a series of extraordinary escapades later - including the acquisition of his own kingdom - he returns to the United States more or less broke but undaunted. His proposal to develop camel transport as preferable to the burgeoning railway is unsurprisingly unsuccessful; his treatise proposing the importation of the grape-vine from Cabul to central USA actually reached Congress in 1862 but fell upon unfertile ground.

A soldier with no military credentials who created himself Colonel before promoting himself to General, a doctor with no medical training who performed cataract operations on Afghan women, a spy who changed sides more often than his clothes, a man who flew the Stars and Stripes over the Hindu Kush, a dedicated botanist and indefatigable author, Josiah Harlan was a larger-than-life character who lives vividly on in the pages of Ben Macintyre's marvellous book
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There are two things to review here - the story of Josiah Harlan and the way in which the author tells it - of course the two are linked because I had never heard of this person before I read this book and everything I now know I learned from this book.

Harlan was an American who travelled to India in search of adventure. He didn't like being in the army but soon found himself in a position where he could influence events in Afghanistan (partly by learning the language) and he ended up being important locally and even leading a local army. This is the time of British Imperial efforts to secure this part of Central Asia from the perceived threat of the Russians. Both empires used spies and formed alliances with local tribes when it was to their advantage to do so but neither of them particularly considered that the local people had any right to self-determination or even a view about what was happening to them. This is the world that Kipling describes beautifully in "Kim" and having read that book I appreciated the history a bit more. Harlan made himself important in a small world by the fact that he was white and thus seen to be allied with those of power but also because he loved the country and its people - he was, however, also after a position of importance for himself. The author references Kipling's short story "The Man who would be King" several times in this book and if you have read that or watched the excellent film (Michael Caine and Sean Connery) then the story will be enhanced for you.

Harlan is a man of contradictions and very much a man of his time. His story doesn't end satisfactorily for him or anyone else but as that is what happened the author can do little else with it. The last part of the book when Harlan returns home is actually quite touching but it is difficult to know what else could have happened to a man who had such ambitions.

The story of Harlan is fascinating and the author surrounds it with lots of background information about the period and the area. It's not anything that I knew before (except through reading Kipling) and I found it easy to understand and interesting to know - if I want to know more detail then I will read a history of the region. I think that the author is a bit soft on Harlan and his ambitions and also on the whole imperial activity in the region at the time - this book is descriptive rather than judgemental and there is no attempt at balancing Harlan's story with that of the local leaders or describing the life of the local people in any depth. I didn't find that telling this story by concentrating on one man spoiled it for me at all. This was a gripping read about one man's ambitions and what he did in a specific time and place. I don't think that I would have liked Josiah Harlan at all but his story is fascinating and well told here.
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on 21 July 2015
Echoes of the Great Game, for over 20 years, Josiah Harlan undertook epic journeys, often in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, through the Punjab, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush; bribed, flattered bullied his way into the hearts of unreliable, fearsome kings and potentates; waxed lyrical about the beautiful flowers and luscious fruits; made himself fluent in Persian. Astonishing guts, stamina and guile; too bad the Brits did not heed him.
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on 18 January 2013
I chose the book as, having seen the film and read Kiplings story (in part) I was curious as to where his idea had sprung from.
Basically the book was intersting but tended to drag a bit and go offat a tangent occasionally, otherwise an intersting read.
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on 10 September 2012
Ben MacIntyre makes facts stream effortlessly off the page. For anyone with an interest in Afghanistan,the Hindu Kush,Punjab and Nothern Pakistan this book is a real eye-opener. The internicine strife, the diplomatic skullduggery, the betrayals are all there to this day but well grounded in history. This story traces an American born Quaker, thwarted in love, who roams the fiefdoms and courts of the area in the 1820-40's eventually gathering an army, following the steps of Alexander the Great. It is tightly written and extensively researched but readable for all that.
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on 25 September 2010
If like me, you have little 'real' knowledge about Afghanistan and the recent conflicts and the Russian invasion, then I am probably very much in line with the knowledge of the people who organised those conflicts and invasions. And no this is not an 'Anti War' review.

At one point Macintyre tells the tale of an unfortunate British diplomat in the 1800s who is fooled into attending a 'peace' meeting and ends up beheaded and displayed as a trophy of war. Over 100 years later the Russian backed President of Afghanistan has a similar end as the Russians retreat. Nothing appears to change there, and no invader appears to do any good over the years.

One of the main lessons in this is how the region and peoples are untameable. Brothers will fight alongside each other to oust the current leader, and as one of them comes to power the other brother starts his plans to oust his brother.

Into all this as a gamey adventure seeking Quaker comes Harlan, certainly a very interesting man, sometimes very self promoting and as swift to change sides in a battle as many of his Afghan counterparts.

Whether he actually IS the influence for Kiplings' The Man Who Would Be King I'd say is VERY debatable. And that is the only flaw in this account as Macintyre seems intent on proving the link, but doesn't really find or give any categoric evidence to prove that.

Harlan is certainly a tremendously important piece of the region's history, but along the way you are introduced to many other characters (obviously real people) who crossed paths with Harlan and are probably as interesting, and you might say even more so, than the person this book is about.

All in all definately a 5 star read. Macintyre still has the tendency to drop in some 'spoilers' giving you hints of what is to come when they are not needed, but a thoroughly entertaining and educating book, easy to read and a pleasure to pick up.
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on 20 January 2011
I didn't like Kipling's short story, rather a moral tale, that much. Yet it was made into one of my favourite films. When I later learned that Kipling based his story on a real person, I bought McIntyre's book. We can only surmise that Kipling based his story on the life and doings of Josiah Harlan, but Ben McIntyre's case is very convincing. His own experience as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan helps to bring his research in stuffy archives (including Harlan's lost memoirs)to life. The book proved to be un-put-downable. Harlan's Afghan adventures are the most spectacular part, but there is also a before and after, which makes it the biography of a fallen hero but also of a man of flesh and blood. Reality, once again, surpasses fiction. After reading about all the political intrigues in Afghanistan at the beginning of the 19th century, one cannot help but wonder. There may be new (foreign) players on the field, but what has really changed since then?
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on 7 April 2013
Well written book about a larger than life adventurer of the 19th century. GMD's Flashman aroused my interest in Central Asian and Indian affairs of this period and this is the one of the best I have read of this time.Recommended.
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