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The eighth of the Flashman novels in publication order, Flashman and the Dragon is set in 1860 and follows on chronologically from Flashman and the Angel of the Lord. It is quintessential Flashman, following the now familiar sequence beginning with Flashy getting involved with a dodgy but apparently harmless scheme, in this case opium trading. Things go badly wrong and he becomes embroiled in the Taiping rebellion and the Second Opium War, meeting along the way the rebel leaders - including Hong Xiquan - who claimed to be the brother of Jesus - members of the Qing dynasty, and British military commanders: James Hope Grant, "Chinese" Gordon, and the Big Barbarian himself, Lord Elgin. Flashy is captured, threatened with torture, and kept as a kind of pet by the Emperor's favorite concubine: well, somebody has to do it.
As usual, George MacDonald Fraser provides plenty of fascinating historical detail but wears his learning lightly: this is how history should have been taught at school. By this stage in the series, Flashman has softened considerably, and the continuous string of horrors to which he is subjected win him the reader's sympathy. In any case, his own villainy pales into insignificance in comparison with the massacres carried out in the name of the rebels' Heavenly Kingdom. Fraser is, one suspects, using Flashman as a mouthpiece for his own politically incorrect views, and while he is certainly no apologist for the Chinese, he is equally critical of British colonialism.
Until I read this book, I had not heard of the looting and burning of the Summer Palace, which was ordered by Elgin himself, in retaliation for the torture of British prisoners by the Chinese. The destruction of the palace was truly an act of criminal barbarity that must rank as one of the most shameful in British history. Even the boorish Flashman takes no pleasure in the destruction, though of course he shares in the looting. My admiration of the porcelain in English country houses will be tempered in future by the thought of how it came to be there. Even Queen Victoria got in on the act, acquiring a Pekinese from the Imperial Palace, which was appropriately christened "Looty".
This is one of the very best of the Flashman series: a rare comic novel with a serious historical and moral purpose.