George MacDonald Fraser
Alfred A. Knopf, 288 pages, $24
In general, reading a book prior to reviewing it is a bad idea.
An unread book, from dust jacket to endpapers, shivers with lambent possibility. Bearing down upon it with reading glasses and notepaper in hand serves only to strip away its elusive charm. Whatever delights may have been imagined to lie within its pages shrink away in terror at this assault.
No good can come of this.
And no reviewer can be counted upon to preserve complete objectivity about a work once they’ve subjected it to this level of relentless, word-by-word scrutiny.
Publishers know all this, of course. Which is why they helpfully provide along with review copies of their books a single printed sheet containing blurbs — reassuring reactions to the book by others who haven’t read it.
More dangerously, sometimes these publicity sheets even include a plot summary. What could possibly undermine a reader’s joy more than knowing beforehand what a book is about? It takes all the mystery out of it.
Extended to book selling, this tell-all modern obsession is, frankly, calamitous to literature. The reputations of most of the world’s well-regarded books teeter on this knife edge.
Generations of cheerful booksellers have been perfectly correct in recommending Dickens’ Bleak House or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past without ever cracking the spine on these classics themselves.
They have understood that book lovers enjoy books — on the coffee table, the beach blanket, or artfully perched on a shelf — and should not be harassed with too much information.
In contrast, book critics despairing over the reading public’s dwindling numbers might consider their own part in traumatizing said public with persnickety, condescending twaddle in the form of “reviews.”
It’s doubtful whether anyone would have appreciated these distinctions better than George MacDonald Fraser, whose last novel, The Reavers, is, they tell me, a “swashbuckling frolic.”
Fraser is best known for his popular Flashman series, which follows the exploits of that roguish 19th-century cavalry officer and anti-hero Harry Flashman through the course of 12 novels. Flashman fans mourn the loss of Fraser who died this year at 82, but they may find consolation in this final “exuberant embrace of yarn-spinning for the sheer fun of it.”
“This book is nonsense,” Fraser writes in the introduction. “It’s meant to be.”
What follows, in 268 “brisk pages,” is an “Elizabethan-era concoction of high-jinks” in which the good, (Archie Noble), the bad (dastardly Spanish ambassador, Don Collapso Regardo Baluna del Lobby y Corridor), and the buxom (Lady Godiva Dacre) disport themselves in either furthering or foiling a plot to kidnap King James VI of Scotland and substitute an impostor.
Whatever The Reavers lacks in “tissue-thin adherence to a plot-line,” it more than makes up for in “witty dialogue and splendid set scenes worthy of Wodehouse,” apparently.
And while the Flashman series gained a following for the accuracy of its period detail, The Reavers “gleefully tosses that to the winds.”
Bizarre anachronisms abound for comic effect, but so does the “nudge-nudge wink-wink nod to modernity” (a scheming wizard complains to his assistant that the conversation they’re attempting to monitor in their cauldron cannot be heard because the cauldron’s been left on mute).
Fraser tells us that The Reavers was meant as “an octogenarian’s rebuke to a generation which has become obsessed with misery and disaster.” Armed only with “derring-do and a wildly re-imagined, ahistorical Britain,” The Reavers succeeds, “slaying all dragons before it.”
But in an effort to appease my editor’s requirement for a comprehensive review, let us also note that the last word in The Reavers is “here.”
Saying anything more would only spoil it for you.
And me, too.