This story merges the Flashman of old with my childhood hero Biggles, though I can’t recall Biggles ever being chased out of a French brothel pursued by a naked madame who was trying to shoot him!
Does it do justice to George MacDonald Fraser’s (GMacF) orginal? Yes and no. It is certainly better than Brightwell’s.
This version has Harry Flashman the grandson (or is he?) of the old General inheriting the Flashman Papers, amongst other things, and discovering that he is a chip off the old block, so to speak. After getting into trouble at Rugby School by blowing up a statue on Speech Day he is forced into the army, ends up in the 1st Bengal Lancer’s (Skinners Horse) where we join him as he discovers a love of flying the new-fangled flying machines.
As he returns to Blighty he witnesses the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand while on the way to join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps (RFC) where he’s just in time to join in the fun that is the First World War (FWW). The “Knights” referred to in the title are the “Knights Of The Air” as the early RFC pilots were dubbed in some jingoistic newspapers of the day.
Moore’s depiction of the FWW is very authentic and accords with other books I have read on the subject. He makes the odd visit to the trenches to tell us what they were like but mainly tells the story from the air, where he sees the rows of bodies strung out in their ranks on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Unfortunately Moore falls into much the same trap as Brightwell. Brightwell made Flashman too nice while Moore makes Harry too brave. While professing to be a coward Flashman does all the things an RFC pilot of the FWW would be expected to do. He flies several sorties a day at times, week after week, month after month, tired and in all weather conditions, manages to shoot down some enemy aircraft and rises from being a newly qualified pilot to temporary command of his own Squadron on the Western Front. Cowards don’t do that.
GMacF got around this problem by making sure that Flashman, despite being a soldier, never had command of soldiers. He was thrust into peril by accident or by the designs of others, not as a consequence of routine soldiering. That means that the old Flashman was always able to sneak off and hide, or if all else failed put a braver man between him and whatever danger he was facing. Moore, on the other hand, gives Flashman responsibilities for his Observer, for other pilots or just for himself. It’s very hard to hide behind the curtains when you have to land your aircraft safely in order to survive. This means that he has to do everything everyone else does. He is scared, of course, but I think that would be quite a normal reaction to someone trying to kill you or to your aeroplane’s engine failing at a crucial moment.
A true coward would have resigned his commission as soon as it became apparent that war was coming and high tailed it to somewhere safe, preferably where it was also easy to make money. He might not even have bothered resigning, he might have just run! The USA would probably have been good enough, if not China. If he couldn’t do that then he would have used his connections, of which Flashman frequently boasts, to get him a nice safe job at The War Office. Instead Moore has him engaging in dog fights with the likes of Immelmann and Richtofen; not just once but several times.
There are a number of sub plots which do give Harry a chance to demonstrate his cowardice, but the biggest of these stretches credibility too far even for a novel. It relies heavily on someone being in just the right place at just the right time to intercept Harry, and given that person would have no reason to be within 500 miles it’s too much to accept. The sub plot ends, it appears, with Harry free and clear, but he then returns to the scene of the crime when any self respecting coward would be putting on his running shoes. There is such a thing as poetic licence and there is such a thing as driving without a licence, MOT or insurance and Moore is guilty of the latter.
I was very impressed with the historic research and as well as extensive footnotes Moore provides five appendices relating to historical characters and events and, in one case, a theory of religion. This theory about the origins of Christianity and the Stewart royal dynasty is very interesting but I would suggest that if you are a true believer then you give that appendix a miss, as it doesn’t correspond to what most of us were taught at Sunday School. Personally I don’t think it is any more, or less, believable than the official version. Disappointingly Moore refers to a couple of 19th century scandals and then doesn’t go on to tell us what they were about. Why did they not get a footnote of their own?
One of the poorer things about reading on Kindle is that it's difficult to flip from the story to the back of the book where the footnotes are kept. Perhaps Moore might bear this in mind in future and put the footnotes at the end of each chapter, so we can read them while they are fresh in our mind, rather than when we've finished the whole book. There were more than 120 of them and it's difficult to remember to what they all related.
Like the Brightwell book this novel was poorly copy edited and there were a number of typos evident; at one point Goering is spelt Goring, which confused the heck out of me. How did Flashman suddenly arrive in Oxfordshire? As there are no publishing credits listed I suspect this is a self-published novel and poor editing is a hallmark of those sorts of books. However, that is a minor detraction from an otherwise satisfactory novel.
This is certainly a far better book than that produced by Brightwell and I would certainly buy a sequel, providing Moore avoids his cowardly protagonist becoming too heroic. It is well written and the pace is good, though it does get a bit complicated in places when Flashman starts to puzzle out what may be a very complex family tree. If you are an ardent Royalist you may not like those parts. A good holiday read, but still not GMacF.
Next week a review of a book that will scare the pants off everyone whose laptop is fitted with a webcam - that's provided I finish reading it in time of course.