The third book in a series tracing our hero’s successful career and adventures fighting for the British in the Napoleonic wars.
Cornwall is obviously a military history buff, relishing the dates, companies, weapons, troop movements, locations, battles etc. of the period. If you’re into that sort of thing, go hard. Moreover we’re drenched in action – this is centred on major battles. And the action carries you along; the page-turning managed to keep me up to knock the book over in a few nights. In his following ‘historical note’ Cornwall owns up to where he’s bent things a little for the sake of his story:
Purists will also be offended that Sharpe attacked Ciudad Rodrigo with the Third Division, and Badajoz with the Fourth, but it is the fate of fictional soldiers to be always where the fight is thickest even when that means a cavalier disregard for the make-up of divisions.
This reminds me of Patrick O’Brian, who I believe said that all the things that happen to his 18th Century RN hero did actually happen – but never to the same man. Books like these can be a far more enjoyable way of learning a bit of history, and both writers are prepared to paint some of the less admirable sides of ‘their’ heroes and ‘their’ army (who both go berserk in Sharpe’s Company, butchering surrendering French soldiers once they’ve breached the wall at Badajoz).
Comparing the two military historical writers any further, however, can only put Cornwall in the shade. While Cornwall could contend that he’s giving an accurate soldier’s eye view – grim, ruthless – I found his characters one dimensional, something you couldn’t say of O’Brian’s Marturin or Aubrey. Indeed, Sharpe’s right hand man Harper is barely even a cardboard invention: little John has simply changed his uniform, accent and century. O’Brian’s characters often surprised me: it felt like the author had some insight into the journals and accounts he’d read from another age. Once I’d had their opening description Cornwall’s characters never did – I felt more like I was reading someone who’d seen a lot of mid-day black and white movies (witness, for example, his massively stereotyped image of the coarse working class army wives). His heroine and his villain could have stepped out of pantomime.
For a purportedly historical novel this book is awash with melodramatic fictional conventions – and that bugs me more than if it were, say, thrown into an SF context based on the same historical events. I’d feel far less compelled to judge his W.E. Johns attitude to the largely faceless enemy or the glory of battle. Of course every book is contrived, but this feels so contrived (as opposed to crafted) – Sharpe will suffer several losses (no fault of his own) early in the book so that his eventual inevitable victory will taste all the sweeter. OK, OK, likewise Jack Aubrey, but there’s so much else happening along the way. The devotion of Sharpe’s men to their dashing leader feels so much more Hollywood than history, as, of course, his charmed ability to stand in a spray of bullets that can only ever touch the minor characters standing around him.
Maybe you could put aside the pretensions of authenticity (of character, not dates, events and places) and just enjoy the well researched settings and brutal victories. However even with some pretty generous suspension of disbelief parameters Cornwall’s fairly central plot around the villainous Hawkeswill is internally stupid. A deranged (yet cunning) serial rapist-murderer, Sharpe’s nemesis, who in previous books has given Sharpe overwhelming personal motivations to kill. Early in the book he gives us one more – he corners Sharpe’s lover and attempts to rape and kill her. Sharpe and little John step in mid-attack and overpower him. Hawkeswill sternly vows his intention to rape and kill her at the earliest opportunity. Sharpe’s assassin girlfriend offers to kill him. Harper begs for the task. Sharpe – whose bread and butter is killing – says he wants to kill him. Yet … like those who oppose Batman and James Bond, for some reason these seasoned executioners inexplicably can’t bring themselves to simply fire a round or insert a knife. Sharpe’s reasoning, “I want to do it publicly,” out of some sort of supposedly noble desire to thereby purge the evil Hawkeswill has visited on so many – is nothing short of ridiculous. The result, of course, is that Hawkeswill is simply turned free – by the hero – to torture, rape and kill more innocents and provide suspense. In order to set up the climax of Sharpe having to win the race past the walls of Badajoz to rescue his de facto wife and child from the lurking killer/rapist, Cornwall expects his readers to have his supposedly super-resourceful hero blithely let him walk around untouched – without even bothering to attempt to kill him. It’s far worse than the insufferably procrastinating Hamlet, as Sharpe is supposed to be an unusually able plotter and killer. This absurd contradiction bugged me (did you pick that?), and got more and more stupid as the book went on – to the supreme absurdity of Hawkeswill getting away yet again (from three armed experienced killers in the one room) to lurk about in the next novel! Hawkeswill, in contrast, actually had the intelligence to know who his enemies were, to carefully observe them and take rational and devious measures to bring them down (such as attempted fragging. That being said, it is also stupid that he’s supposed to be alive after years of making every man he serves with hate him passionately – every man from an army, according to Cornwall, composed of a significant number of convicted violent criminals with no compunction and every opportunity to shoot their malevolent sergeant in the back).
OK, sure, if Cornwall was wanting to write cartoon farce (“Next time, Gadget, next time”; “Ah, Von-Stalhein – we meet again”), this is acceptable, nay, expected. But hard-bitten, carefully researched historical fiction? Only as hard bitten as Georgette Heyer. He doesn’t have to write something as bleak as All Quiet on the Western Front, but he should at least be informed by it. Alternatively he could write ‘historical fiction’ like Alexandre Dumas, where the characters are deliberately far larger than life and we can relish the greater emphasis on the ‘fiction’ without the troubling demands of trying to be essentially ‘historical’ within precisely documented specific events.