© 1990 Bernard Cornwell
Although Napoleon Bonaparte came from Corsican royalty, his upbringing evidently lacked manners, else he would know it is most uncouth to interrupt a ball with a massive invasion. After years of brutal fighting in Portugal and Spain, Richard Sharpe thought he had seen the end of war. The imprisoned emperor’s armies were defeated while he languished in Elba– and yet, like a horror movie villain, he sprang back to life as soon as the peace was settled, resuming his role as Emperor and resurrecting his grand army. So much for the allies’ little dance party. Richard Sharpe couldn’t be happier to march off to war and leave the frippery of the ballroom floor behind — well, provided his adulterous wife returned the fortune she stole from him when she ran off with a charming cavalryman. So the peace is ended, and the conflict begins anew — but this time there are no grand campaigns, only Napoleon’s furious drive toward Brussels to capture the allied high command, and the Duke of Wellington’s hurried hope to to find ground firm enough to make a stand against Napoleon’s army and utter lack of tack. Both meet on the plains outside of Waterloo, where Richard Sharpe will lay eyes on the man he’s fought for so many years, and make history yet again.
The grand finale to Sharpe’s series and the Napoleonic wars, Waterloo must be one of the best-known-of battles in western history. Although many preceding Sharpe stories have rivaled this in spectacle — the man has charged a fair few forts, both in India and in the Iberian Peninsula — Waterloo is easily the largest. The ranks of both armies swell, not just with thousands of ground-pounding infantry and artillery, but a full host of colorful cavalrymen. Officially attached to a Dutch unit with an aristocratic idiot for a commander, and suspended from duty for refusing to serve incompetent orders, Sharpe spends the battle moving from frantic scene to frantic scene, at one point standing with his own old regiment, the South Essex, against the mighty French horde. Cavalry charges in all their glory strike again and again, but as usual Cornwell is careful to create not only the show of war, but its awful, grisly consequences; one man is left to a fate so obscene that I felt sorry for him despite his loathsome character. Even though Sergeant Harper is no longer in the service, he and Sharpe spend the entire battle palling around raising hell, seeing Sharpe’s old regiments (including his very first, the 33rd Regiment of Foot) and running into a few old comrades. Cornwell is excellent in the usual categories; dialogue between Sharpe and Harper is fast and witty, and the characters stand out even from the lushly detailed background the author gives them, rich as it is with the sight of fog rolling over the hills or the thick smell of horse manure filling a valley floor. It’s the usual Sharpe fun, but added to a far larger and grander battle; Cornwell always writes spellbinding battle scenes, but here the effect is magnified by the sheer scale of the forces involved. Waterloo is thus a good end to a fantastic series. Those who’ve never marched with Sharpe will be pleased to note that Cornwell adds in a little background information, in no doubt anticipating that the simple title will draw in more readers than the usual Sharpe devotees.