Is the amazingly prolific Bernard Cornwell capable of writing a bad book? The evidence mounts sky-high against. Even this first story in his most famous and lengthy series, which could have been a tedious origin story for his scruffy but shrewd hero, Richard Sharpe, is freaking masterful.
I've long had a weakness for books set during the Raj -- Britain's long occupation of the Indian subcontinent that started as a mere commercial domination but ended with India (which at that time comprised India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) as the "jewel" in Queen Victoria's crown -- especially the works of M.M Kaye (basically historical romances with a strong military/adventure element, to which I was passionately attached as a teenager), Paul Scott (his socio-politically challenging Raj Quartet is a series I re-read almost as frequently as I do the Lord of the Rings) and Theodore Dalrymple (check out White Mughals sometime, a history of British officers who "went native" in Muslim India), so when I realized that this first Sharpe novel was set then and there, it leaped up to near the top of my "to be read" pile. I had thought myself Cornwell'd out for now, you see, or at least feeling guilty that I wasn't paying more attention to newer releases.
But damn! Bernard Cornwell's most famous hero got his sergeant's stripes in India? I am officially put out with pretty much everybody for not telling me this.
Though of course the risk would come up of my not reading anything but Sharpe once I had this one under my belt. That's what happened with Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin books, into which most of the year 2000 disappeared, after all. So everybody gets a pass this time.
But so, Sharpe! As Sharpe's Tiger opens, Richard Sharpe is a private in India, planning to desert from the British Army (here acting as pretty much the strong-arm proxy of the British East India Company), taking his lover, Mary, with him. Mary, however, is the widow of an officer, a half-caste who looks like a white woman and a very pretty white woman to boot. Hence she is coveted by all, including Sharpe's malevolent sergeant, who outmaneuvers Sharpe and looks to have succeeded in getting him killed but for a junior officer's having other plans for him. That could also get him killed. Plans that involve a ridiculous espionage-and-rescue mission that would seem completely doomed from the start (Cornwell is very good at stacking the deck against and putting the screws to his protagonists) but for the reader's knowledge that Sharpe has another 23 novels and short stories ahead of/behind him.
All loaded with action, adventure and pure badassery.
I always maintain, though, that any story that relies solely on surprise twists to be interesting is not a good story at all. Cornwell doesn't write those kinds of stories, though; while I know Sharpe is going to survive this adventure, and the terrible Siege of Seringapatam, I don't know how he's going to, and that's always a bigger mystery for my money. Says so in the scriptures.**
And the prose itself, describing all the action, intrigue and danger is, as always, superb and memorable:
The Scots colors were unfurled, the drummer boys sounded the advance, the pipers began their fierce music and the brigade marched into the rising sun. The sepoys followed. Rockets streaked up from the tope, but the missiles were no more accurate in the morning than they had been at night. The four brass field guns fired shell after shell, only stopping when the Scotsmen reached the aqueduct.And this isn't even a major scene!
And don't even get me started on the scene when [REDACTED] happens and Sharpe and Colonel Gudin exchange a round of serious and sincere compliments to one another. I believe I still have a lump in my throat. I have the same problem in Patrick O'Brian's fiction whenever Aubrey or Maturin is a prisoner of war or otherwise have one-on-one dealings with the enemy. There is something about Men of Honor in Napoleonic War fiction that just gets me, every time. I'm not a sucker for a man in uniform, but sure am one for a man who can recognize the humanity and worth of a foeman, oh yes!
Indeed, even the major bad guy, the Tippoo Sultan (an actual historical figure), gets some moments of staggering awesomeness and is a fully fleshed-out character, whose motives we understand and almost come to share, as seems to be a characteristic of Cornwell's work. We're not getting George R.R. Martin-style "moral complexity" but we do come to understand him well enough to admire his stunning ballsiness in the novel's climax. Respect. But you're still an evil sonofabitch, Tipoo.
And then there's that damned Frenchman, Colonel Gudin:
Look after him, Lieutenant... An army isn't made of its officers, you know, though we officers like to think it is. An army is no better than its men, and when you find good men, you must look after them.And the lump gets bigger. Damn. But lest we think Sharpe some kind of paragon, well, in the end he proves himself as flawed and human as any of us. With a little bit of tiger thrown in. Damn.
I still haven't gotten to all of the other amazing characters in this story, some real, some fictional. Colonel Baird. Lieutenant Lawford. Colonel McCandless. Appah Rao. Kumindar Singh.Colonel Wellesley (the future Iron Duke). They're all completely fascinating and the fact that some of them are on the opposite side from others makes pretty much the whole last third of the story a rush from anguish to anguish, with a little bit of OMG thrown in.
For those who might ask, I have made a conscious decision to avoid the television adaptations of these books and stories until I've read them all. I'm grateful they exist, though, for without them we'd have a lot less Sharpe, because the shows spurred Cornwell to write more. Glory!
Oh, and for the record, if someone were ever to develop some Sharpe video games, I would play the Snape out of them. The living Snape.
*I say "ahead of/behind" because while this is the first Sharpe novel in historical order, set in 1799, the first Sharpe book Cornwell wrote was Sharpe's Gold, set in 1810. I'm reading them in historical order because I'd probably go nuts any other way.