© 1988 Bernard Cornwell
It’s the year 1809, and Richard Sharpe has just survived a slaughter in the wintry wastelands of Spain. Cut off from the army and surrounded by Frenchman, the lieutenant — promoted from the ranks after he saved the future Duke of Wellington’s life — must assume command of what his left of his regiment and lead them to safety. They are not impressed with a soldier-turned-officer such as he, and his life is imperiled not only by the abundance of the enemy and the savageness of the terrain, but by his own soldiers’ risk to mutiny. In the hills, however, Sharpe meets a group of battered Spanish cavalrymen who carry a box of such great important that their major thinks it may turn Spain’s almost-defeat at the hands of Napoleon around to victory.
It’s been a few months since I read my first Sharpe’s book, largely because I’ve been enjoying Cornwell’s other work. Before finishing off the Grailquest series I decided to repay Sharpe a visit, and — of course — it was well worth the while. Sharpe’s Rifles tells the story of how Sharpe came to command the 95th rifles, with whom he shares an antagonistic relationship throughout the novel — especially regarding Patrick Harper, the large and surly Irishman who is the rifles’ leader despite his lack of rank or battle honors. Although Harper and Sharpe are battlefield comrades and close friends in later novels, here their conversations tend to involve a great deal of physical violence. While I haven’t read enough of the Sharpe novels to appreciate everything a ‘prequel’ novel like this would hint at, I was as usual impressed by Cornwell’s dramatic flair and characterization. I especially enjoyed his depiction of the cynical Sharpe set against his superstitious comrades and allies, who use holy water to drive away malevolent water-spirits in streams they wish to ford. Cornwell’s lead characters tend to lean away from religion, a fact, I’ve always appreciated — and the one religious protagonist I’ve seen of Cornwell’s came in Heretic.
Having seen the movie first, I was concerned that the novel itself would seem like old hat. Although Sharpe’s ultimate objective is the same in both works, the movie and book reach their ends through considerably different means. As much as I enjoyed the movie, Cornwell’s writing is far superior, especially in the endgame where Sharpe has a private motivation to capture the final objective, one which overwhelms the military or strategic importance of it. That personal quest captured my attention in the book’s final chapters.
I’m beginning to suspect that it doesn’t matter which order I read the Sharpe novels in, and I’m tempted to hang both the chronological and order-of-publish approaches and just read the books in the order that they strike my interest. I will be marching with Lieutenant Sharpe again, in any case.