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Black Ajax (1997)

by George MacDonald Fraser

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243680,990 (3.47)6
Bringing historical fact spiritedly to life, Fraser tells the rollicking tale of how a Virginia slave, "the black Ajax, " fought his way to freedom and then to celebrity in England in the early 1800s.

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Showing 1-5 of 6 (next | show all)
Fine, but by far the weakest of GMF's novels that I've read. ( )
  expatscot | Jul 4, 2020 |
If you just finished the Flashman papers and are going through GMF withdrawal, don't fret, you will like this. Flashman's father is a great side character and while it took me a while to get used to the 1810s language it is another well written classic historical novel by Fraser. ( )
  karatelpek | Apr 19, 2020 |
Interesting look a social history from this wonderful historian/author. Cleverly told account of black American bear-knuckles boxer Tom Moulineaux trying to become the English/World champion in the early 19th century. The story is told as seen through the eyes of a dozen witnesses who were there at the time. Harrowing at times. ( )
1 vote Novak | Feb 21, 2018 |
"Aye, it was a different age, gone now – and good riddance, you may think. But if it was wild and reckless, it was alive, with spirits that England couldn't accommodate today." (pg. 50)

George MacDonald Fraser is unquestionably my favourite writer. Not only do the books he wrote cover all the things I look for in a great read – adventure, humour, pathos, well-drawn characters, meticulous research and wonderful prose – but they do so with panache and, more importantly, without fail. It was one thing providing all these qualities in the twelve Flashman books, as there Fraser had created one of the finest comedic characters in fiction and – no disrespect to his craftsmanship – one imagines he couldn't help but strike gold. But since finishing the Flashman Papers, I've also found these qualities to be evident in his other works, particularly Quartered Safe Out Here and the McAuslan stories. And now Black Ajax.

I sound like a broken record when reviewing any of Fraser's books, for this novel provides compelling characters who feel real, fine historical research that really places you in pre-Regency England and rolling prose that makes the dialects – often a difficult trick to pull off – sound as natural as breathing. There's humour too, with Harry Flashman's father crashing the party and tearing it up with bold, damn-your-eyes prosing that made me remember just how much I loved the narrative voice in those Flashman books. There is even a deviation into reminiscing about the Peninsular War – true Flashman-esque territory – and a bedroom dalliance that proves the worth of the old adage 'like father, like son'.

But these are all by the way: what matters here is the story, and what a story it is. It is a fictionalized (though meticulously researched, as ever) version of the story of Tom Molineaux, a black American slave who wins his freedom in a vicious fight-ring – think 'mandingo' fighting – and travels to England to challenge the legendary bareknuckle boxing champion of England, Tom Cribb. What follows is an intoxicating brew of pride and punishment, of racial politics and sporting excellence and sheer brutality. This is a classic tragedy, detailing the rise and fall of Molineaux. A natural fighter and a colourful character, he is corrupted by drink and women and alienates all those close to him. It is fascinating to experience, even if parts of it are horrifying.

The boxing, for example, is incredibly brutal. This was before the Queensberry rules, a time when two men entered the ring for an indefinite amount of rounds and hammered away at each other – without gloves – and with only thirty seconds respite between rounds. The match ended when one boxer admitted defeat. If neither did, the match continued until one was knocked out. Matches could last for over an hour; in one of Molineaux's fights, single rounds lasted about half an hour. With thirty seconds until the next round. It is phenomenally brutal.

But for all this violence, the racial intolerance and the aching tragedy of Tom's self-destructive ruin ("there were two fighters he never could beat. One was Tom Cribb, and t'other was Tom Molineaux," one character remarks on page 228), Fraser and Black Ajax are never pitiless. There's genuine heroism and resolve and dignity from some of the characters here. Even if you're not a boxing fan – I take only a negligible passing interest – you'll be enthralled and inspired by Tom's story: a man who fought his way to the top and who had the main hand in his own downfall. A slave who won his freedom and was the talk and toast of England in the run-up to his match with Cribb. As one character says on page 12, "No, sir, I can't say his was a sad story, however it ended, not with that day in it." Another incredible story. Fraser is immaculate. ( )
  Mike_F | Jun 3, 2016 |
Interesting reading by a good evoker of the Victorian period. The tale of Tom Moulineaux, one of the first black boxing champions. Not a happy book, but interesting. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Aug 25, 2013 |
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The black man is dying, but neither he nor any of the other men in the barn suspects it.
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Bringing historical fact spiritedly to life, Fraser tells the rollicking tale of how a Virginia slave, "the black Ajax, " fought his way to freedom and then to celebrity in England in the early 1800s.

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