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Zealots and cynics, portrayed with varying skill

Flashman on the March
By George MacDonald Fraser
Knopf, 307 pp., $24

Sex Wars: A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period
By Marge Piercy
Morrow, 411 pp., $24.95

The Cultured Handmaiden
By Catherine Cookson
Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $25

In one of his daily columns, which ran from 1939 to 1966 in the Irish Times, the sublime humorist Brian O'Nolan (a.k.a. Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen) skewered some Yuletide chestnuts. ''Let's associate for the moment a few banalities and bores associated with the season. Easily first is the person, usually a woman, who says: 'Christmas? Do you know I wish it was over.' Next possibly is the person who says: 'Christmas? Do you know, I do always think it is a sad time.' "

I don't recall Myles writing about war bores; if he had he might have considered Sir Harry Flashman V.C., an old codger who loves to reminisce about the part he played in the most famous and infamous tiffs of the 19th century, among them the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the retreat from Kabul. There is just one problem. Flashman is never boring. As imagined by novelist George MacDonald Fraser, he is enduringly entertaining, invariably shocking, and always bad. Very bad.

''I'm a cynical rotter," the military cad admits in ''Flashman on the March," the 12th of the fictional ''Flashman Papers." This volume records his reluctant participation in the Abyssinian War of 1868, a melodrama cuttingly described as ''twelve thousand horse, foot, and guns bound for the heart of darkness at a cost of £333 a man. . . . And all to rescue a handful of Britons from a savage prison at the back of beyond. Aye, those were the days."

True to form, Flashman stumbles into history, this time by agreeing to deliver half a million Austrian dollars to the British general who is about to invade Abyssinia from India in order to free the aforementioned prisoners. But things are not that simple. Before he has had time to seduce his first African beauty (his scantily clad guide), Flashman is ordered to enlist a notorious tribal queen as an ally in Britain's confrontation with crazy King Theodore. Guided by his unwavering principles of venality, lechery, and self-preservation, he navigates Abyssinia's whitewater rapids and bloody feuds, and survives torture, massacres, ravening females, and a royal orgy all in the name of, well, of good old Flashy.

Rollicking good stuff, but the Flashman novels are far more than period romps. MacDonald Fraser's action scenes have justifiably been classed with those of Robert Louis Stevenson while his historical scholarship (there are 62 footnotes in this case) and the authenticity of the language and manners in his novels have prompted comparisons to Patrick O'Brian. Certainly, descriptions such as the following are hard to beat: ''Those great robed figures racing down in a chanting mass almost a mile from wing to wing, sickle-swords and spears flourished, black shields to the fore, braids and robes flying. . . . From above it looked like the discharge from an overturned ant-hill spilling across the plain. . . . That was when Bob Napier earned his peerage."

Above all, Flashman's exploits are a sardonic commentary on imperial adventure. '' 'And if we were to occupy the confounded place, Mr. Gladstone would never forgive us!' " says one British official. '' 'What, enlarge the empire, bring indigenous people to subjection, and exploit them for our profit! Rather not!' There was general laughter at this."

If only Flashy had wandered into Marge Piercy's ''Sex Wars: A Novel of the Turbulent Post-Civil War Period." Though even he might have been cowed by all the lofty rhetoric. A provocative-preachy title sets the tone for a clunky epic that takes us from 1868 to 1916 and introduces us to zealots galore, from Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and other feminists to Anthony Comstock, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and sundry wormlike males.

While back in Flashy's Abyssinia, naked female warriors are gleefully castrating their victims, in New York. Piercy's suffragists, spiritualists, brothel madams, prostitutes, and immigrants struggle for independence -- political, financial, and sexual -- while surrounded by men who run the world but who couldn't locate a woman's ''spot for pleasure" if it jumped up and bit them. Which it would, if Woodhull had her way. ''She felt she contained within herself a hundred vital magnificent women in potentiality," Piercy writes, making Woodhull sound like a frisky Swiss Army knife. The author's sincerity and research are commendable, but the result is as dull as any improving tract.

Give me Catherine Cookson any day. The illegitimate daughter of a destitute woman who she was raised to believe was her older sister, Cookson grew up in the north of England and died in 1998 having written 104 works, most of them novels of female endurance in a harsh, violent world. ''The Cultured Handmaiden," set in 1970s Tyneside but with a plot reminiscent of ''Jane Eyre," has as little time for subtlety as it does for pretension. ''What had he been offering her, anyway?" Jinny Brownlow, the young typist, concludes of an ex-suitor. ''Two rooms and a kitchen above his shop." Which sums up a particular time and a woman's place more effectively than any dissertation. Jinny triumphs, of course. Virtuous and plucky like all Cookson heroines, this modern Jane Eyre even gets to choose between Mr. Rochester and his son.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

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