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Summary

From William Dalrymple—award-winning historian, journalist and travel writer—a masterly retelling of what was perhaps the West’s greatest imperial disaster in the East, and an important parable of neocolonial ambition, folly and hubris that has striking relevance to our own time.

With access to newly discovered primary sources from archives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia and India—including a series of previously untranslated Afghan epic poems and biographies—the author gives us the most immediate and comprehensive account yet of the spectacular first battle for Afghanistan: The British invasion of the remote kingdom in 1839. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed helmets, and facing little resistance, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the mountain passes from India into Afghanistan in order to reestablish Shah Shuja ul-Mulk on the throne, and as their puppet. But after little more than two years, the Afghans rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into rebellion. This First Anglo-Afghan War ended with an entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world ambushed and destroyed in snowbound mountain passes by simply equipped Afghan tribesmen. Only one British man made it through.

But Dalrymple takes us beyond the bare outline of this infamous battle, and with penetrating, balanced insight illuminates the uncanny similarities between the West’s first disastrous entanglement with Afghanistan and the situation today. He delineates the straightforward facts: Shah Shuja and President Hamid Karzai share the same tribal heritage; the Shah’s principal opponents were the Ghilzai tribe, who today make up the bulk of the Taliban’s foot soldiers; the same cities garrisoned by the British are today garrisoned by foreign troops, attacked from the same rings of hills and high passes from which the British faced attack. Dalryrmple also makes clear the byzantine complexity of Afghanistan’s age-old tribal rivalries, the stranglehold they have on the politics of the nation and the ways in which they ensnared both the British in the nineteenth century and NATO forces in the twenty-first. Informed by the author’s decades-long firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan, and superbly shaped by his hallmark gifts as a narrative historian and his singular eye for the evocation of place and culture, The Return of a King is both the definitive analysis of the First Anglo-Afghan War and a work of stunning topicality.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your My Library section along with the audio.

©2013 William Dalrymple (P)2014 Audible Inc.

Critic reviews

"An absorbing and beautifully written account of a doomed effort to control an apparently uncontrollably population." (Booklist)
"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." (The Wall Street Journal)
"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." (The Guardian)

What members say

Average customer ratings

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  • Michel
  • Swanley, United Kingdom
  • 06-10-15

The Great Game taken to a brilliant new level.

This is a must for anyone with an interest in the history of the British Raj. This book is very well researched, and every detail is relevant. The various plots and large cast of characters have been presented in such a way as to give the listener an easy passage throughout. My only criticism is that it is a shame that such a quintessentially episode of British history was not read by a British actor. The reader gives American pronunciations throughout, which I,
personally, found somewhat grating.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars
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Rivetting reading, well researched and told

A brilliant book, about Afghan, British, Indian and Russian history, but as much about understanding the present, the stories and human insights are wonderfully weaved into an understanding of military and political maneuver.

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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

An amazing and tragic adventure perfectly told

Would you consider the audio edition of Return of a King to be better than the print version?

Don't know - never read the print version. Dumb question!

What other book might you compare Return of a King to, and why?

?

What does Neil Shah bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

His pronunciation of the many local names both brought authenticity to the experience and helped me keep track of the unfamiliar names of the many characters. His effortless and smooth style was a joy to listen to.

Did you have an emotional reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

Neither. I knew the outline of the story, though some might cry at the pitiable details in places.

Any additional comments?

A wonderful book telling an important story that everyone should hear so humanity stops making such stupid mistakes. I couldn't disagree more with the reviewer who said the story was dull and the narrator had a New Jersey drawl - I don't know what that is but it sounded Asian to me! Definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding how the world is today.

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Fascinating comprehensive narrative

I was impressed by the comprehensive research and detailed account of the war in Afghanistan. In particular the parallels with the recent fighting there are both fascinating and in many ways concerning in particular how the lessons of history are never learned.

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars

Feeble story, poorly read.

What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

Better reading.

What was most disappointing about William Dalrymple’s story?

Feeble story, nothing compared to the other of his books.
Disjointed sequences.
Badly narrated with American nasal twang, telling a story of the Raj.

Would you be willing to try another one of Neil Shah’s performances?

No

If you could play editor, what scene or scenes would you have cut from Return of a King?

I could not bear to go through the audio-book in entirety, Sorry Mr Dalrymple.

Any additional comments?

None

2 of 6 people found this review helpful

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Profile Image for Robin A. Gower
  • Robin A. Gower
  • 09-07-15

Astonishingly intelligent historical analysis

If you could sum up Return of a King in three words, what would they be?

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

What did you like best about this story?

Dalrymple tells the story of the First Afghan War with deep understanding of Afghan motivations, politics and personalities. He is master also of the British and military situations in England and in India, and of the policies and leadership failures of the East India Company in its decline. There is heroism and treachery on all sides, and competence and honor are not always rewarded. This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the roots of the current situations in south and central Asia. It is also a primer on political and military decision making, and it should be required reading for every Foreign Service officer and for every university student preparing for a military career.

What does Neil Shah bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

The narration is fluid and first rate. Names of persons and places in Asian language that may be unfamiliar to listeners are articulated naturally. This makes it just as easy to follow the sequence of events among the Afghans as it is to follow the British. The Afghan subjects become as real and believable to the listener as the Europeans.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

Beautifully and clearly written with sympathy and understanding of all the participants in an ongoing debacle. The portraits of the participants are masterful, although my favorite must be that of Lady Sale (whose Diary I once read, and now will reread with much greater enthusiasm), whose stamina, loyalty, common sense and courage would make her a hero in any age.

Any additional comments?

Return of a King is a triumph of balanced historical analysis. Dalrymple has told the story of the First Afghan War, its causes and consequences, with deep knowledge of the sources from both (or rather, all) sides. It is impossible to listen to this book and not have an enhanced understanding of the current political and military positions in Afghanistan.Did I forget to mention that the book is gracefully written, and that it reflects a real appreciation for the history, culture and arts of Islamic Asia?

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Profile Image for Jon Meyer
  • Jon Meyer
  • 05-06-15

Engrossing

Complete, thorough and well researched it remains lively and entertaining. Shah's narration is on point and not to be missed.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Profile Image for Amar Hinduja
  • Amar Hinduja
  • 29-04-16

Another emotional saga of the British Empire

An interesting and well researched narrative of a little known country. The final chapters are very touching , as the tragedy of the British retreat unfolds.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
Profile Image for richard
  • richard
  • 01-03-15

Well written and informative read.

Well written and informative, should be mandatory reading for anyone deployed to Afghanistan.

If only it had been written prior to NATO's current campaign, they might have thought twice about getting involved in what would be interpreted as a holy war by the locals.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 15-09-16

Great narrative of the First Afghan War

Great telling of the First Afghan War. It really sheds light on the region. Dalrymple's narrative draws you along and the historical figures come to life. Like any good historical text this makes you want to go back to the source material and hear all the perspectives in full.

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  • steven
  • 11-06-15

Great explanation of the era

Covers the decline of a king, British Invasion, and correlates today's war with the past.

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  • Not polarized
  • 18-04-16

Failed Authencity

Any additional comments?

While your attempt at authenticity is laudable, you failed miserably in a racist manner (all brown people apparently sound the same to you). You hired an INDIAN guy to read and pronounce names of AFGHAN people and places. That's like hiring a FRENCH guy to read an ENGLISH book. Basically, you thought you were being authentic by hiring someone of similar skin color as the the people who are the subjects of the book. The French guy cannot properly pronounce English words (you would get a lot of 'ze keess' for 'the kiss' and so on). Similarly, Hindi is SO different from Farsi and Pasho, that this just makes you guys look ignorant. His pronunciation of the Afghan names are purely Hindi, and it is pure ignorance of you to actually think that is how Afghans pronounce the names of people and places mentioned in this book. Although I do want to state that he did a great job reading it - but none of the names of places and people are pronounced the way he pronounced them.

2 of 5 people found this review helpful