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Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell

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Alaric
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Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell

Postby Alaric » Mon September 1st, 2008, 2:07 pm

Instead of taking up forum space for all twenty-one Sharpe novels with a thread for each one, I'm going to post my reviews for them in this thread if that's okay. Feel free to add your own too. :)

Last edited by Alaric on Thu January 22nd, 2009, 2:23 pm, edited 10 times in total.

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Postby Alaric » Mon September 1st, 2008, 2:09 pm

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“Sharpe’s Tiger,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Seringapatam, 1799

Sharpe’s Tiger is chronologically the first in Bernard Cornwell’s widely successful Richard Sharpe series. Written in 1997, it is hardly Bernard Cornwell’s first novel – by the time of writing he had written nearly thirty novels. Cornwell concluded the first-era Sharpe novels with Sharpe’s Devil in 1992 and in between wrote his Arthur series as well as the incomplete Starbuck Chronicles. Following the success of the Sharpe television series Cornwell began writing prequels to his original series, starting with this one.

Set in India in 1799, Richard Sharpe is just 22-years-old, still a private, inexperienced, and thinking of deserting the British Army. His sergeant, Obadiah Hakeswill, is making his life a misery with the humdrum day-to-day boredom of the army. Hakeswill is a brilliant villain and we get to see what a vile person he is when he conspires to get Sharpe flogged.

After suffering that torture, described in gruesome detail, Sharpe is assigned to a special task by Col. Arthur Wellesley with Lt. William Lawford, which takes the story on a thrilling adventure right to the heart of the Tippoo Sultan’s kingdom, Seringapatan (modern Srirangapattana). There, the usual escapes and fights occur as Sharpe battles to fulfil his assignment and the reward that goes with it. Not to mention the romantic interest, which I dubbed Sharpegirl, is there in the form of Mary Bickerstaff, a widowed young army wife attached to Sharpe. Cornwell describes the difficulty in Sharpe’s task without glossing over anything – the way he describes the heat of India, the dangers of Sharpe’s predicament and down to things such as the way a soldier goes about his business is done superbly in its gore and closeness to detail.

For many older Sharpe fans that read the original first-era series these ones are seen as inferior. Well, I never read those ones. This was the first Sharpe novel I read after reading Cornwell’s Arthur series and I loved it. I loved the action sequences, I loved the characterisations of Sharpe as a young man and Hakeswill, and the story was gripping and had enough to it to keep my hooked to the end. Not to mention the history is strong too – Cornwell does admit to taking some liberties for the sake of the flow of the story, but it is nothing too noticeable to distract the reader.

If you haven’t read Cornwell or Sharpe before than this is a good place to start. It’s easy to read and gives you a very good idea of what Cornwell’s style is like. It’s fast-paced, the characters are very strong and they read like stories in that era, not just a story about the India of the early British Raj years. However, if you are someone that finds the bloodiness of battle described as to what it must have really been like a little too much then I would read with caution as at times it can be quite graphic.

Recommendation: Very good. **** or 8/10.

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Postby Alaric » Mon September 1st, 2008, 2:10 pm

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“Sharpe’s Triumph,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803

Following on from Sharpe’s Tiger is the second prequel in Bernard Cornwell’s long-running Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Triumph. Written in 1998, the story of the young Richard Sharpe from his years in India continues with a tale about Sharpe sent on a mission to arrest a renegade East India Company officer, and the historically important Battle of Assaye in 1803.

Sharpe is now a sergeant after the events of Sharpe’s Tiger. Early in the piece he witnesses the betrayal of Britain by Maj William Dodd in the city of Ahmednuggur (modern Ahmednagar), who massacres the British garrison in charge. Sharpe is then hired by Col. Hector McCandless, a friend from the previous novel, to bring Dodd to arrest. While all of this is going on, in the background Sgt. Obadiah Hakeswill returns with a plot to bring down Sharpe on trumped up charges of striking an officer.

From there, Sharpe witnesses the Siege of Ahmednuggur with McCandless. This is superbly written as Sharpe is merely a spectator, but Cornwell still details the work of the Highlanders who manage to scale the walls of Ahmednuggur under heavy fire. The chase for Dodd takes Sharpe and McCandless across India and eventually to the Battle of Assaye, a battle that Wellington later described as his finest hour – not bad for a man who won at Talavera, Salamanca, Vitoria and Waterloo.

At Assaye we get to see arguably the most important action in the entire Sharpe series, something readers of the first-era only read in dialogue and brief mentions in the narrative – Sharpe saving the life of the unhorsed Wellesley. While Cornwell has taken a liberty by replacing another man with Sharpe, the events of that are written faithfully to the history as described, as Wellesley really was unhorsed at Assaye and his life placed in serious jeopardy by Indian lancers. As a reward for his heroic act Wellesley gives Sharpe his officer’s battlefield commission, promoting him from sergeant to ensign.

Sharpe’s Triumph is much like Sharpe’s Tiger. Sharpe is still young (he’s only 25 in 1803) and he laments his lack of experience. He makes mistakes. He’s rougher. He is by no means the finished product as a character and that is what’s enjoyable about these Indian prequels. As a reader, you get to see what I think is one of fictions best characters becoming the hero he would in future books.

For fans of Sharpe and people who enjoyed the first one keep reading. It’s all the hallmarks of a Bernard Cornwell novel, and I really did enjoy it. It was fast paced, the story again is strong but what is truly excellent were the two battles, described so intensely that you really do feel you are watching the Siege of Ahmednuggur with Richard Sharpe.

Recommendation: Very good. **** or 8/10.

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Postby Alaric » Mon September 1st, 2008, 2:11 pm

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“Sharpe’s Fortress,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Gawilghur, December 1803

Chronologically third in the Richard Sharpe Napoleonic War series, Sharpe’s Fortress leaves off where Sharpe’s Triumph ends. This is the third and final novel in the Indian prequel series depicting a young Richard Sharpe before he became the man of the Peninsular War, and tells the story of Siege of Gawilghur in December of 1803.

Much like in Sharpe’s Triumph, this instalment opens with Sharpe coming to terms with his new rank. Now he is an officer in the 74th Highlanders Regiment of Foot, but his background and upbringing make that difficult for him. Men don’t respect him, officers talk down to him, and Sharpe is miserable, so much so that he is sent to the baggage train and becomes quartermaster to the regiment. There, Sharpe encounters corrupt officers selling British Army equipment behind the back of Maj-Gen. Arthur Wellesley. Once again Sgt. Obadiah Hakeswill is back to bring hell to Sharpe with another plot to take him down.

News of William Dodd’s escape from Assaye prompts the British to chase him and his Mahratta allies to the great fortress of Gawilghur that sits high atop the Deccan Plain. Who rules in Gawilghur, it is said, rules India. Soon Sharpe learns of his transfer out of the 74th and to a new regiment, the 95th Rifles. But he is then taken prisoner by Hakeswill and his cronies and must fight for his escape as a few old foes from Sharpe’s Tiger return. After escaping from Hakeswill Sharpe sets off to re-join the army at Gawilghur and leads his old regiment, the 33rd Regiment of Foot (Wellington’s) in their attempt to break through the unbreakable walls of Gawilghur.

The Siege of Gawilghur is described in all the usual thrillingness and bloody action of all Cornwell novels where the difficulty in breaking into the fortress is well described and thoroughly believable – Cornwell does a great job of detailing the schematics of the fortress so readers have a fair idea of what it must have been like. The siege is also where we get to see how Sharpe came to wear his iconic cheek scar of later books. Quite how Sharpe, as the only officer, leads the 33rd and parts of the 74th to break into Gawilghur seem a little improbable and unlikely. But according to the history as written by many Wellington biographers, that is what really happened and it was only a small British force that achieved such a feat.

I enjoyed the action in this novel, but its purpose was to set up Sharpe’s transfer back to Europe to join the 95th Rifles and to explain how Sharpe received his scar. The rest of it is rather unimportant and much of the middle section, like Sharpe’s escape from Hakeswill, was only there for the sake of it being there. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it for what it was but this is a fairly forgettable Sharpe across the series.

Recommendation: Good. ***1/2 or 7/10.

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Postby whitelady3 » Mon September 1st, 2008, 2:56 pm

I've been addicted to this series over the past year. I've listening to some audiobooks and really love them! I need to start listening again, or find the books...

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Postby Alaric » Tue September 2nd, 2008, 12:56 pm

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“Sharpe’s Trafalgar,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Trafalgar, October 1805

After Richard Sharpe leaves India, he must get home. That is the premise of the fourth instalment in the Richard Sharpe series, Sharpe’s Trafalgar. Written in 2000, this novel is a gap between Sharpe’s years in India and the beginning of the original first-era Sharpe novels set in Spain and Portugal in the Peninsular War, and takes place in 1805 and at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Just what is Richard Sharpe doing at Trafalgar? Well, for one thing, he isn’t meant to be there at all. The first half of the novel deals with Sharpe aboard a cargo ship, the Calliope, and how Sharpe gets from there to a British man-of-war heading for the greatest naval battle in history. There, Sharpe assists the British against the French and Spanish and before the battle there is a wonderful cameo by the Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. Despite being a departure from the norm in Sharpe, the battle is described as good as anything Cornwell has written in other works. It’s breathtaking, thrilling and action packed.

Despite the limitations of being aboard a ship the whole time, Sharpe’s Trafalgar tells a compelling story. There is far less action – the big battle at the end aside – than normal for a Sharpe novel. However, Cornwell compensates for this by focusing on developing the younger Sharpe’s character and fleshing out the details that are just taken at face value in the later novels. He deals with Sharpe’s nervousness around people around of higher classes, his lack of confidence and belief in himself, and his perennial ability to fall head over heals for a Sharpegirl. This Sharpegirl, Lady Grace Hale, later becomes pregnant with Sharpe’s first child.

I think mainly Cornwell wrote Sharpe’s Trafalgar for himself. Richard Sharpe is inspired by Horatio Hornblower and Cornwell is a big fan of naval fiction himself. It serves little purpose for advancing the Sharpe story aside from the fleshing out of his character – he receives no promotion and there is no involvement by Wellington, so it is hardly crucial to read.

But I enjoyed it. Many Sharpe fans don’t, but I quite liked it. It was something different. Cornwell is a good enough writer to make it interesting and the day-to-day life on an early 19th century ship is particularly entertaining. Equally, I think this is perhaps the most stand-alone of all the Sharpe novels as the back-story and plays little role in this story, so if you want to sample Sharpe then this is a good one to read.

Recommendation: Good. ***3/4 or 7.5/10.

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Postby TerriPray » Tue September 2nd, 2008, 1:34 pm

I got hooked on the series some years ago and my father gave me his copies back in 2000.

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Postby Alaric » Sat September 6th, 2008, 6:51 am

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“Sharpe’s Prey,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Copenhagen, 1807

Chronologically, Sharpe’s Prey is the first Sharpe novel to be set on mainland Europe. This is the fifth in the series and is set mostly in Denmark, around eighteen months after the events of Sharpe’s Trafalgar, telling the story of the Siege of Copenhagen in 1807.

The opening chapters of Sharpe’s Prey deal with Sharpe still grief stricken over the death of Grace Hale, his love from the previous story. They were unmarried and so the lawyers of the Hale family took just about everything Sharpe owned, including his small fortune amassed in India. He’s angry, depressed and sick of the army – in 1807 Richard Sharpe even hated the 95th Rifles.

Sharpe is then drafted into a covert mission by Gen. David Baird, a friend from India, to uncover a French agent in possession of stolen British gold, who is attempting to bribe Crown Prince Frederick (the future Frederick VI) into siding Denmark and its powerful fleet with France. The British had intended to use that gold to do the same thing, as Denmark were the only other nation capable of matching Britain on the sea.

Sharpe soon uncovers the French agent and is trapped inside Copenhagen as the British mercilessly bombard the city with shells from the Royal Navy. What then follows is the usual trappings of a Sharpe novel as he attempts to escape from Copenhagen and rejoin the army. While an entertaining enough read it does have a same-same feel to it.

The main point of this novel is to be a pace gap between Sharpe’s Trafalgar and the next in the series, Sharpe’s Rifles. It wouldn’t be right for the Sharpe story to go from such a thrilling and important event as Trafalgar and then to jump straight into the gut of the action in Spain with Sharpe and his rifles. So, Sharpe’s Prey is nothing more than an intermediary between the Indian prequels and Spain.

This instalment in the Sharpe series is good enough for existing fans. If you aren’t, then start with another one as if this is your first introduction to Sharpe then it would probably turn you off it. While it isn’t poorly written and nor is the history lacking, it just lacks the compelling nature of the later Spain novels. Whether or not this is because this one is merely there to put a gap between Trafalgar and Spain is up for debate, but Sharpe’s Prey hardly offers anything new about the Sharpe character.

Recommendation: Okay. *** or 6/10.

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Postby Alaric » Wed September 10th, 2008, 12:17 pm

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“Sharpe’s Rifles,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the French Invasion of Galicia, January 1809

At last, Richard Sharpe has reached the country he spent most of his soldiering in: Spain. It is early 1809 and Sharpe has finally made his debut in the Peninsular War in 1988’s Sharpe’s Rifles. While this is the sixth in the series chronologically, Sharpe’s Rifles was actually written ninth, between Sharpe’s Siege and Sharpe’s Revenge. However, it is set before either of those – five years before – and is the first prequel Cornwell produced.

The British army is retreating into Portugal after being battered and beaten by Marshal Soult’s forces at the Battle of Corunna. Its leader, Sir John Moore, died after being struck by a cannonball on the battle field. Sharpe is with them and is on campaign with the 95th Rifles for officially the first time, and they are soon cut off from the rest of the British forces by a French ambush. Almost all of the officers are killed in the attack leaving Sharpe as the only fit officer left, and so he was left in command of the tattered remnants of the 95th Rifles.

The only problem for Sharpe is that no man in the 95th respects him or recognises his authority. Men in the ranks expect their officers to be gentlemen, men of repute, and not low-born former thieves like Sharpe. His first task is to win over the men in the face of mutiny, at least enough to make it back to safer lands still under British control. To do that, he convinces the burly soldier Patrick Harper to become his sergeant as the men of the 95th seemingly listen to Harper more than they do their newly instilled commanding officer.

On the retreat, Sharpe encounters Maj. Blas Vivar, and a new adventure begins. Vivar is desperate to protect a secret chest from the French and the sympathiser, the Count of Mouromorto. Vivar wants to take the chest to Santiago de Compostela and begin an uprising against the French. He asks Sharpe to help him which he does for Sharpe sees this as an opportunity to show his metal to the remaining men of the 95th.

This then takes him to Santiago de Compostela where they fight the French almost to the death, but in true Sharpe fashion, escape and with the victory after the peasants loyal to Vivar rise up with them. Sharpe leads his few men out of Spain where he meets Maj. Michael Hogan on a ridge overlooking the Atlantic and Portugal. He then hears the greatest news of all: Arthur Wellesley was coming to the Peninsular.

I really enjoyed Sharpe’s Rifles. It’s one of my favourite in the series because it captures what Sharpe is all about – no frills adventure, near death escapes, balls first action with little room for apologies. But what is really great about this one is how Sharpe, for the first time (chronologically), is in command of not just his own destiny but the lives of the men of the 95th Rifles. It changes his character a little as Sharpe constantly questions himself, his lack of self-confidence as an officer on full show, all because of his unique responsibility.

There is a rawness to Sharpe’s Rifles that makes it special, I think. Sharpe is in command but he isn’t at the same time. There are other people around who can change his fate, be it Maj. Blas Vivar or the rebellious future Sgt. Harper. But in the end Sharpe comes through, as does this novel. It is a compelling story that pays special respect to Spain’s religious fanaticism (the rational French with their liberal ideas are actually the villains), but above all Sharpe’s Rifles is great because of the characterisation of Richard Sharpe before he became the James Bond of the Napoleonic Wars in Spain.

Recommendation: Very good. ****1/2 or 9/10.
Last edited by Alaric on Wed September 10th, 2008, 12:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby Alaric » Wed September 10th, 2008, 1:01 pm

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“Sharpe’s Havoc,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Campaign in Northern Portugal, Spring 1809

Sharpe’s Havoc follows on from Sharpe’s Rifles, set a few months after the escape from French forces and the uprising in Santiago de Compostela. Written in 2003, Sharpe’s Havoc tells the story of Richard Sharpe and the remains of the 95th Rifles in northern Portugal in the early months of 1809.

Tasked by Maj. Hogan, Sharpe is instructed to rescue a stranded English girl at a family retreat in the suburbs outside Oporto. The girl is a member of a family of wine merchants whose home just so happens to be behind enemy lines in country now occupied by Marshal Soult’s marauding army that had chased the British deep into Portugal. It doesn’t take long for Sharpe and his men to reach the home but they soon find out the girl doesn’t want to leave either. As well as that, they are joined by a Portuguese officer, Captain Jorge Vicente, who is a welcome addition as he provides a certain level headedness and rationality that is missing with only Sharpe and Harper in command.

Sharpe is then in a desperate fight as the French, tipped off by an undercover agent, learn of his presence and set out to attack him. Trapped in the hills what ensues is the usual Sharpe fight – badly out-numbered and out-gunned, the Rifles stage a tremendous showdown with the inexperienced French cavalry. Their escape, with the English girl in tow (Kate Savage) is very well written.

From there, Sharpe learns the identity of the undercover French agent operating in the British army. The story then moves to a fight at the walls of Oporto where Soult’s surprised forces are battered by the well protected British. With the French defeated Sharpe sets off after the French spy in the Portuguese mountains where the story reaches its conclusion as the retreating French forces are battered again, and they receive more bad news: Arthur Wellesley had arrived.

All in all, this is a very run of the mill novel. As with Sharpe’s Prey it offers nothing in the way of moving the story forward other than to be a gap between two significant moments in Sharpe’s overall story, and so we learn nothing new about Sharpe’s character and the like. The evolution of Sharpe and Harper’s relationship is strengthened, but as with a lot of the prequels written after Sharpe’s Devil they are somewhat constricted by what transpires in future novels. As a result it is formulaic and easy to predict, following the usual path of Sharpe novels.

But I ended up liking it a lot more than I thought I would. The fight outside Oporto really was well written and it really did feel as though Sharpe could lose at any second. While the identity of the undercover spy was easy to guess Sharpe’s determination to bring him to punishment – Sharpe style – was good stuff. This is a great novel for pure entertainment value. Isn’t that what reading is about anyway?

Recommendation: Good. ***1/2 or 7/10.


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