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From the prizewinning historian, a masterly retelling of the first Afghan war, perhaps the West's greatest imperial disaster in the East: an important parable of neocolonial ambition and cultural collision, folly, and hubris.
With access to previously untapped primary sources, William Dalrymple gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account we have had of the spectacular first battle for Afghanistan. We see the British invade the remote kingdom in 1839, reestablishing Shah Shuja on the throne—this time as their puppet—and ushering in a period of conflict still unresolved today. We see the Afghan people rise to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers in 1841, poorly equipped tribesmen routing an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world: more than eighteen thousand British troops retreated from Kabul through treacherous mountain passes, and only one man made it through to Jellalabad. Dalrymple illuminates the similarities between what the British faced in Afghanistan nearly two centuries ago, and what NATO faces there today. The Return of a King is both the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war and a work of stunning topicality.
“Dramatic, richly peopled, and spell-binding. . . . It is impossible to summarize the huge slice of history Dalrymple has carved out in such loving detail and with such a gift for narrative. He reminds me of Barbara Tuchman: nothing daunts him, nothing resists his patient research, he is terrific at re-creating characters, and never manages to let detail slow down his story. . . . A masterful work of history . . . Everyone who enjoys reading history will read this book with admiration and pleasure. Anyone who still has illusions about the value of fighting in Afghanistan will read it with rapidly mounting unease. . . . There could not be a more timely book to read.” —Michael Korda, Newsweek
“More than timely . . . The author’s deep research provides a whole new take on almost every aspect of the story. Mr. Dalrymple is a skilled storyteller and fills important gaps, mining new sources. . . . Mr. Dalrymple’s writing is sly, charming and clever. His histories read like novels. [His] book delights and shocks.” —Michael Fathers, The Wall Street Journal
“The British humiliation in the so-called First Anglo-Afghan War . . . has been told often before but perhaps never so well as by Dalrymple. . . . An absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollably population.” —Booklist (starred review)
“By turns epic, thrilling, and utterly appalling, at once deeply researched and beautifully paced, Return of a King should win every prize for which it’s eligible. Yet William Dalrymple has done more than write a brilliant work of history; in these pages he also holds up a distant mirror to the West’s more recent, and comparably disastrous, military incursions into Afghanistan. . . . A magnificent and shocking story . . . It is difficult to do justice to the evenhandedness, vivid writing, and extensive scholarship supporting every detail of Return of a King.” —Michael Dirda, Bookforum
“[Return of a King] brings new insights and extends earlier ones to a wider public. . . . Dalrymple lets the action play out relentlessly and compellingly, yet has endnotes, glossary, bibliography, and index of a high scholarly standard. . . . The author’s attentiveness to Afghan voices means the local people become real personalities, rather than ciphers. . . . [Dalrymple’s] commitment to the historical project is so clear and his writing so attractive.” —Elizabeth Gaigent, Times Literary Supplement (London)
“William Dalrymple is a master storyteller, who breathes such passion, vivacity and animation into the historical characters of the First Anglo-Afghan war of 1839-42 that at the end of the 567-page book you feel you have marched, fought, dined and plotted with them all. . . . Return of a King is not just an animated and highly literate retelling of a chapter of early 19th-centruy British military history, but also a determined attempt to reach out and influence the politicians and policy-makers of our modern world. . . . It is [the book’s] mastery of intimate details, as well as the landscape and the grand rivalry between empires, with which Dalrymple wins our trust and keeps our interest.” —Barnaby Rogerson, The Independent
“Few writers could go wrong with a story populated with so many villains, rogues, poltroons, swashbucklers, spies, assassins and heroes. But none would make a better job of it than William Dalrymple in this thrilling, magnificently evocative Return of a King.” —James Delingpole, Mail on Sunday
“Complex and remarkable. . . . As taut and richly embroidered as a great novel. . . . This book is a masterpiece of nuanced writing and research, and a thrilling account of a watershed Victorian conflict.” —Rupert Edis, The Sunday Telegraph
“[A] brilliant new book. . . . It is to be hoped that any future British leader contemplating intervention in Afghanistan, or any other part of the Muslim world, will read Dalrymple’s book. For while it is first and foremost a valuable contribution to the history of Afghanistan and the British Raj, it is also intended to draw parallels and convey lessons about the latest western involvement in the region.” —Anatol Lieven, Financial Times
“Sensationally good. . . . Dalrymple writes the kind of history that few historians can match. Sure, they can all add a footnote or two about our knowledge of the past, but how many of them actually change the whole way in which we look on it? . . . A truly epic story of imperial ambition and hubris with profound lessons for our own times. Compared to this—Britain’s greatest military defeat in the 19th century—Custer’s Last Stand is an insignificant skirmish. I doubt that I’ll read a better written or more important history book all year.” —David Robinson, The Scotsman
“A fascinating account. . . . The story of the first Anglo-Afghan war and the retreat from Kabul in 1842 has been told many times before. But Dalrymple does it better; he has spent years piecing together archival material in Delhi, Lahore, London and elsewhere. He has wandered the streets of Kabul looking for, and finding, traces of Afghan epic poetry on the conflict. Many of his sources are previously untouched by other Western writers and as with his previous books, his vivid prose is a joy to read. . . . Dalrymple is a masterful narrator. . . . The range of new sources employed adds more depth to an already complex history, yet he navigates deftly between British, Afghan, Indian and Russian sources without losing his thread. . . . A gem of a book and one hell of a story.” —Edward Burke, Dublin Review of Books
“[A] marvellous book . . . brilliant, exact language. . . . There is much in Dalrymple’s superb book that has contemporary resonance.” —Hugh MacDonald, Sunday Herald
“Dalrymple, probably the best known British historian of India, has written eight acclaimed books on a wide variety of subjects, but this is the book he was born to write.” —Fiametta Rocca, The Economist
“William Dalrymple combines in himself three remarkable talents. First, he is a researcher par excellence. Second, he has the insight of a historian. And third, as a writer of exceptional dexterity, he is able to make historical research very readable. The story is told in graphic detail, but it unfolds like a cinematic screenplay through the lives of the principal dramatis personae—their personalities, personal quirks, motivating ambitions and family background are etched out to make them living characters travelling along with the reader’s journey. It is not easy to recount dry historical facts in this manner, but Mr Dalrymple—as he has done with all his historical books—personally travelled to the principal venues, revisited the sites of battles, forts, palaces, towns and ordinary homes, and talked to scores of people to capture the flavour of the times about which he is writing. In addition, he has located crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian and used, for the first time in English, nine previously untranslated full-length accounts of the conflict, including the autobiography of the key Afghan king, Shah Shuja.” —Pavan K Varma, Business Standard
“To call it anything less than a triumph would be an understatement.” —Saurabh Kumar Shahi, Sunday Indian
“A masterful history . . . And as the latest occupying force in Afghanistan negotiates its exit, this chronicle seems all too relevant now. . . . The signal achievement of this work is that it makes a nearly two-century-old war seem disturbingly fresh. It makes for grim reading. Like the current adventure in Afghanistan, this first one was undone by the unsustainable cost of occupation, waning political and public interest, and the need to divert resources. . . . Mr. Dalrymple’s book is a timely reminder of the way that wars can begin with promise but end in disgrace.” —The Economist
“[The Afghan] saga has been recounted many times, but never that I can recall as well as by Dalrymple. He is a master storyteller, whose special gift lies in the use of indigenous sources, so often neglected by imperial chroniclers. . . . Almost every page of Dalrymple’s splendid narrative echoes with latter-day reverberations.” —Max Hastings, The Times (London)
“[Return of a King] shows all the elements we have come to expect from Dalrymple: the clear, fluid prose, the ability to give complex historical events shape, story and meaning, the use of new local sources to allow the voices of the people . . . to be heard alongside the much-better documented accounts of the invaders, the deep knowledge and affection for the magnificently rich culture of the Mughals and their various copiers and a lack of patience with tiresome orientalist visions of the ‘proud Pashtun’ or ‘noble Afghan.’ This is clear-eyed, non-judgmental, sober history, beautifully told.” —Jason Burke, The Observer
“Dalrymple, in his sparkling new history of the First Anglo-Afghan War, draws striking parallels between that 19th century conflict and NATO’s current Afghan imbroglio. . . . More is the pity that Dalrymple’s book–the first serious study of the war for almost 50 years, and the only history in English to use extensive Afghan sources–was not available in 2001. . . . Extensively researched (with much new material) and beautifully written, it covers the story from the perspective of both invaders and invaded, and is by far the most comprehensive history of the conflict yet written. It also says important things about war and why it’s waged.” —Saul David, The Daily Telegraph
“Magnificent. . . . [Return of a King] is a history of the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839, one of those passages of history the close examination of which requires a strong stomach–and which therefore also require the most thorough investigation. The seductive artistry of Dalrymple’s narrative gift draws the reader into events that are sometimes almost unbearable, but his account is so perceptive and so warmly humane that one is never tempted to break away. . . . This book would be compulsive reading even if it were not a uniquely valuable history.” —Diana Athill, The Guardian
“In Dalrymple’s usual happy style of historical narrative, applied to a fascinating, neat and highly suggestive series of events, this long and involved book will be a great success, and bring the famous story to a large new audience.” —Philip Hensher, The Spectator
“This is vintage Dalrymple: warp-speed historical narrative, meticulously researched. . . . My only regret reading this wonderful history is that it was not published a decade earlier.” —Justin Marozzi, The Evening Standard
“A meticulous historian and felicitous writer, Dalrymple is also a deep thinker. This is one history book that matters for making sense of Afghanistan, and Britain, today as well as in the past.” —Rosemary Goring, Sunday Herald