George MacDonald Fraser begins his “Foreword” to The Reavers by asserting that “This book is nonsense,” a “rebuke” to a society he insists is obsessed with doom. This work, he explains, is written in the same spirit as his previous novel, The Pyrates (1984). Certainly both books share some of the same elements that made Fraser’s twelve Flashman novels so popular: historical settings, roguish heroes, voluptuous noblewomen, buxom barmaids, deep-dyed villains, and an assortment of outlaws. The Flashman novels also include plots, abductions, barroom brawls, and pitched battles, all staged to display the heroes’ reckless courage and their magnificent swordsmanship. However, though the tone of the Flashman novels is satirical, they are essentially adventure stories with a historical setting; by contrast, The Reavers defies history and denies probability. It is indeed a romp of unreason.
However, this most irrational comic novel has a carefully reasoned structure. It is divided into twelve chapters of equal length, all but the first preceded by Fraser’s commentaries on what has transpired or what is to come. These comments are designed to suggest that the action is not planned but improvised; for example, after chapter 1, Fraser discards several other ideas for the next segment before it strikes him that what he needs now is some glamorous women.
Fraser’s success in making The Reavers appear to be a spur-of-the-moment lark is indicated by the fact that a number of reviewers insist that the book has no real plot. Admittedly, it is difficult to follow the story, in part because one incident follows another in a seemingly random fashion, and in part because the author introduces so many characters and describes them in such vivid detail that it is hard to tell which members of his cast are important. The direction of the plot does not become evident until the third chapter of the book, in which the author introduces his villainsa set of Spaniards and Spanish sympathizers who have met in a cave in order to fine-tune a vicious plotand their plan to substitute an impostor for James VI, the reigning Scottish king, who after the death of Queen Elizabeth I will take her place as the ruler of England. The leader of the conspirators first appears as a wizard but is later revealed to be the malignant La Infamosa. Another member of the group is Don Collapso Regardo Baluna del Lobby y Corridor, the Spanish ambassador to Scotland. A Scottish traitor, Lord Anguish, and an Amazonian pygmy called Clnzh are also present at the meeting. One of the most important conspirators is Frey Bentos, a Spanish monk, who somehow managed to convince the late Lord Waldo Dacre that he was neither Spanish nor a monk, was appointed chaplain to that prominent aristocrat, and used his position to obtain information that would aid the cause of Spain.
In the third chapter, Fraser makes it clear that as rambunctious as The Reavers may be, its plot line has a solid foundation: the conflict between good (England, Scotland, and Protestantism) and evil (Spain and Catholicism). At this point, the author sets out to identify the heroes and heroines in this struggle. Though all of them appeared earlier, they are now shown as both more important and more complex than they seemed. Archie Noble, for example, was introduced as a man who had just been paroled after being imprisoned for vagrancy and was wandering about with no protector and no means of support. Only his dexterity in disposing of the fearsome Scottish gang leader Black Dod Pringle suggested that Noble might be more than a minor outlaw. As the plot progresses, Noble has to admit that he is in fact an English secret agent, and subsequently he is always in the forefront of the action. Another seemingly unlikely hero is the highwayman Ebeneezer “Bonny” Gilderoy, who, though an accomplished swordsman, is best known for being able to kiss any female into acquiescence. Now, however, he has to admit to Noble that...
(The entire section is 1639 words.)