1988; 304 pages. Book # 6 (story-wise) out of 24 in the “Sharpe” series; Book #9 (published date-wise). New Author? : Yes. Genre : Historical Fiction. Overall Rating : 9*/10.
Nothing is worse when you’re in the army than to have to retreat across a foreign country with the enemy nipping at your heels. That’s what Sir John Moore’s British troops are doing in the opening months of 1809. They’re trudging through northwest Spain (Galicia province), trying to stay ahead of Napoleon’s dreaded dragoons, and hoping they make it to Portugal before the French catch up to them.
It’s even worse if you have the bad luck to be part of the rearguard of Moore's army. You have to turn around, give token resistance to the French dragoons chasing you, then turn tail yet again, and hope that not too many of your comrades (including yourself) get killed carrying out the delaying action.
And even worse than that is if you’re a lieutenant in that ragtag rearguard group, lacking the loyalty and support of the soldiers you’re giving orders to. After all, you’ve been promoted from within the ranks, and everyone knows that leadership skills are something that only highbred men from the upper classes possess. And you aren't one of those.
So they've made you a quartermaster to keep you from mucking things up. Procuring food, clothing, and other supplies for the honest-to-goodness fighting men. Let’s just hope the other officers stay alive so that you don’t have to be put into any meaningful command.
Welcome to Lieutenant Richard Sharpe’s daily hell, quartermaster for the British 95th Rifles unit.
What’s To Like...
Sharpe’s Rifles is set in what is known as the “Peninsular War” (the Wikipedia article on it is here), which, quite frankly, I’d never heard of. This is embarrassing since I’m a history buff. There’s lots of action, and it starts immediately. The brutality is vivid, with plenty of blood and gore, but hey, war is dirty, and this one was especially nasty.
There are two main story lines: Sharpe (British) and his crew trying to escape the French, and Vivar (Spanish) and his crew trying to safeguard a mysterious trunk (which I thought was a macguffin at first). while also being pursued by the French Vivar's and Sharpe’s paths cross pretty quickly, which is not a spoiler, then continue as an on-again/off-again alliance.
The character studies are as fascinating as the warfare. Sharpe is a great anti-hero: hated by his men and inferior in leadership skills to both Vivar and Rifleman Harper. Heck, even Sgt. Williams commands more respect than Sharpe. And the chief bad guy, the French Colonel Pierre de l’Eclin, is a worthy enemy, outthinking and outfoxing Sharpe every step of the way. I like it when an antagonist is on equal footing with the hero.
The story is written in “English” as opposed to “American”, so you get words like waggon, sabre, ageing, picquets, grey, foetid, and doxie. That's always a plus for me. There’s also some cussing, but hey, war is hell.
There is also a secondary religious motif throughout the story. Catholic France is brutalizing Catholic Spain, and Protestant England finds itself an uneasy Spanish ally. Sharpe himself can best be called an Unbeliever, and some of his Irish underlings are Catholic to boot. Bernard Cornwell treats all these religious viewpoints with remarkable balance, something you rarely see in novels nowadays.
The ending has some nice twists, including the revealing of the contents of the strongbox, and everything ends with a climactic battle. Despite being part of a 24-book series, this is a standalone novel.
Kewlest New Word...
Doxie (n.) : floozy
Others : byre (n.); rumbustious (adj.).
They were the sting in the army’s tail. If they were lucky this day no Frenchman would bother them, but the probability was that, sometime in the next hour, the enemy vanguard would appear. That vanguard would be cavalry on tired horses. The French would make a token attack, the Riflemen would fire a couple volleys; then, because neither side had an advantage, the French would let the greenjackets trudge on. It was soldiering; boring, cold, dispiriting, and one or two Riflemen and one or two Frenchmen would die because of it. (pg. 16)
“Mind you, I knew an officer in India who converted the heathen to Christianity,” Sharpe said helpfully, “and he was most successful.”
“Truly?” Mr. Parker was pleased to hear this evidence of God’s grace. “A godly man?”
“Mad as a hatter, sir. One of the Royal Irish, and they’ve all got wormscrew wits.”
“But you say he was successful?”
“He threatened to blow their heads off with a musket unless they were baptized, sir. That queue went twice around the armoury and clear back to the guardhouse.” (pg. 111)
“I’m sure God did his best, but where was the sense in putting Ireland plum next to England?” (pg. 262)
For some reason, I thought this was the opening book in the series, but instead I wallowed into the storyline at Book 6. Bernard Cornwell gives bits and pieces of the backstory, mostly Sharpe’s prior wartime activities in India, and his unwanted promotion to lieutenant. It was also obvious that several of Sharpe’s Riflemen comrades had been introduced in earlier books. But I never felt like I was missing crucial background information, and that was a real plus.
It should also be mentioned that Cornwell didn’t pen this series in chronological order, so even those who have read the books in the series as soon as they were published have had to do some jumping around timeline-wise. Wikipedia gives the chronological and literary order of the books here). Since I plan to read some more of the series, it is nice to know that I don’t have to worry about which order I read them in.
9 Stars. I’ve been meaning to check out Bernard Cornwell for quite some time, and it was a real treat to finally get acquainted with his works. He is a prolific writer of Historical Fiction, and I have two more of his books, set in England during the Dark Ages, awaiting my attention on my Kindle. I doubt it will be long before the next review of one of his books appears on this blog.