Welcome to the book review column. For October I am happy to present four eclectic offerings for your consideration, and a "bonus" review and piece devoted to the Boxer Rebellion. I hope you find these helpful and, as always, feedback is most welcome. The first volume offered for your consideration is the long awaited and eagerly hoped for:
"Flashman and the Tiger" by George MacDonald Fraser (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 347 pages.
Few authors have more devoted followers among colonial gamers than George MacDonald Fraser. His Flashman books have been a source of delight and historical tidbits for decades, and more than a few colonial war games have boasted a "Flashman," whose contribution is usually to flee from battle. Over the years fans have come to accept a certain degree of repetition in Fraser's plot lines for example it is inevitable that Harry Flashman will find himself menaced by death, or worse disgrace, and have an obligatory dalliance with one or more alluring females. (It's also guaranteed that the reader will at one time or another come across the word "poonts.") But this aspect of the series is more than compensated by Flashman's nearly complete lack of redeeming values and Fraser's keen ability to paint a picture of Victorian society.
"Flashman and the Tiger," like "Flashman and the Redskins," is a departure from the usual in that it consists of three short stories, rather than one full novel. The first and longest story, "The Road to Charing Cross" embroils Harry in an attempt to save Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria from assassination. The second, "The Subtleties of Baccarat," showcases one of the more newsworthy trials and scandals of the period and presents a new insight regarding Lady Flashman. The third, "Flashman and the Tiger," touches upon both the Zulu War and one of Sherlock Holmes' adventures.
The book's time scale is elastic, moving from 1878 to 1894. All the tales are enjoyable, although fans of action may find the second story a bit slow. And the battles of Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift are treated far more cursorily than a colonial gamer would wish although Fraser hints fuller accounts may yet be forthcoming.
I am happy to say the aging Flashman is even more engaging than Flashman the younger. Still a cad and a poltroon, his accumulated wisdom and experience have made him more interesting than ever. If there is a drawback to this book it is that the historical footnotes, so beloved by Flashman fans, are not as numerous as in earlier works. This is regrettable for they serve as enjoyable reading in and of themselves.
Long time fans of the series will be eager to search out this book, irrespective of any reviews. Readers who have not made the acquaintance of Harry Flashman are urged to do so, but it is strongly recommended that they read the books in sequence, beginning, appropriately enough with "Flashman."
Next, a volume far more technical in nature and limited in scope:
"Civil War Small Arms of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps," by John D. McAulay (Lincoln, RI: Andrew Mowbray Publishers, 1999), 184 pages.
At $39.00 this is not a book the average gamer, even the average U.S. Civil War gamer, may want to invest in. But it is a book that they will want to check out from the library. As the title implies, this is a highly specialized volume.
It is also a meticulously researched and illustrated volume. There is a wealth of information between these covers. During the Civil War - and for years afterward, the Navy and Marines utilized a bewildering variety of weapons and they are apparently all discussed in this book. The level of detail includes individual ship's allowances of small arms, including edged weapons yes, even cutlasses.
Included in the work are descriptions of several landing party and ship to shore actions undertaken by the sailors and Marines of the United States. It is unfortunate that these are not presented in as great detail as the small arms the amphibious warriors carried, but there is ample information here for numerous interesting and varied scenarios.
Among the photos are many of the ships, monitors and gunboats themselves. Modelers searching for new ideas may find leafing through the volume helpful. There is an especially good photograph of an early attempt at an amphibious vessel, the Commodore Morris, a converted New York ferryboat that returned to the passenger trade after the war and stayed in service until 1931.
The next book, one more than twenty years in publication, moves us solidly on to dry land and half way around the world:
"My God - Maiwand!: Operations of the South Afghanistan Field Force 1878 - 80," by Colonel Leigh Maxwell (London: Leo Cooper, 1979), 277 pages.
If you haven't read "My God - Maiwand!" you are in for a treat. If you have a serious interest in the second Afghan war you should seriously consider adding this book to your collection. It is a jewel.
In short 1880 was not a good year for the Queen Empress. The Zulus had played havoc with the South Wales Borderers the year before. While some British eyes were on Natal, others were focused on Afghanistan, the perpetual tinderbox. Maxwell charts how, through a series of political and military decisions, Afghanistan once again burst into flames and the chain of events that brought the forces of Ayub Khan against the numerically inferior but better disciplined forces of Brigadier General G.R. Burrows. The result was a pitched battle involving fairly large numbers of men. It was also a combined arms battle with infantry, cavalry and artillery each playing key roles. Maiwand was a disaster for the British, more serious than Isandhlwana.
Maxwell has a military eye for time, terrain and tactics and luckily for the reader the storyteller's sense of drama and clarity. The result is an unusually fine battle account, with maps and photos to help the reader along. Thanks to the author, it is not hard to trace the progress of the battle and his analysis and conclusions are presented with a coolness of calculation that goes a very long way in convincing the reader that Maxwell's vision of the past is the correct one.
This book is also a gamer's delight. As mentioned there are maps, and if you take notes, a robust order of battle with estimated numbers. There are also well-supported value judgments as to the fighting qualities of the various units. About the only thing missing is a detailed description and plates of the various uniforms on the field. Highly recommended.
And we end up this month's reviews with another oldie, but still goodie:
"Featherstone's Complete Wargaming," by Donald Featherstone, (London: David & Charles, 1988), 208 pages.
If you don't know that many people believe that Donald Featherstone is the father of modern wargaming the odds are that you are new to the hobby. As his bio states, he is "Possibly the best known wargamer in the world," In 1988 his miniature soldier collection numbered more than 25,000 pieces which remains a respectable number even by today's standards This is an overview book, designed to elicit new players, expound upon rules for seasoned gamers, and basically present the spectrum of gaming conflict. Even the brash new (for the time) role-playing games get a mention. And therein lies the book's interest and charm. This is a fly in amber, a window into the hobby's past; it is not a depiction of gaming life today. For example, while some still swear by Featherstone's rules others find them cumbersome and difficult. (Although they may have been considered a break-through of simplicity at the time.) You can judge for yourself as many rule sets are reproduced here.
There are also some lovely pictures of tabletops and soldiers, just as you would expect. Many are from manufacturers that only senior members of our hobby remember. But you will also find Foundry's finest depicted, showcasing the design talents of the Perry brothers. These are balanced by shots of classic minifigs. There are also photos by Duncan MacFarlane, who of course is still in the business. Uniform descriptions can be found, but they are scattered through the work. You will also come across terrain tips and battle maps.
There are also vignettes from Don's wargaming club, which will remind you that the past is a different country than the present. Imagine gaming conventions where coat and tie seemed to be de rigueur, and the membership breathed a sigh of relief when the sole female gamer left for other venues.
Colonialists will find several sections directly relating to our period that still bear reading. These include sections on the Northwest Frontier and the Boer War. There is also a beautiful picture from a game set in the Sikh wars.
A trip to the library or a lucky strike in a used bookstore is required to find this book. It doesn't have to be read from cover to cover, though if you do, offer up the time spent as a tribute to one of the hobby's great names.
This concludes this month's regular column. For one more review of a brand new work, see the article on "Books on the Boxer Rebellion." Until next month, good reading and good gaming.