Why is it that these massive series set in the Napoleonic wars are so like potato chips? As I warned in my prior Sharpe post earlier this month, if the Sharpe books were anything like as enjoyable as Patrick O'Brien's Napoleonic saga at sea, the Aubrey/Maturin books that I would not be able to stop at one, and that has come to be the case.
I'm going to try not to glut the rest of this year with All Sharpe, All the Time, but I make no promises.
This second Sharpe novel (by historical chronology rather than publication order) takes place about four years after Sharpe's elevation to sergeant after a series of tremendously awesome feats at the siege of Seringapatam. He's still in India for this one, but instead of battling a usurper Sultan to further the company's interest in what was almost a skirmish in a sort of proxy war between the British and French, he's contending with that rarity of rarities, an officer who has deserted from the East India Company's army (Sharpe serves the crown directly, but "John Company" still fields its own military at this point) and is putting his wit, training and tactical knowledge to work for the Mahrattas, a Hindu imperial power in whose internal struggles the Company had intervened before but now wants to expand its territory against the Company's interests.
This traitor, the semi-historical Major Dodd, has a very personal and almost deadly impact on Sharpe right at this novel's beginning, and is a figure of real menace, a great complement to Sharpe's leftover enemy from last novel, Sergeant Hakeswill, who has dreamed up another Wil-E Coyote scheme to get Sharpe once and for all. Dodd could care less about Sharpe, though; he is a cold, smart, scary bastard, ruthless as hell and absolutely deadly. And it's Sharpe's job to track him down. But of course, a certain someone is also hunting Sharpe! The double game of cat and mouse that thus ensues would be thrilling in any setting, but in this one it's completely riveting.
Meanwhile, in the grander scheme of things, General Arthur* Wellesley, who will one day be the Iron Duke but is now still a lowly second son of the nobility trying to make good in the army, is trying to take on those same Mahrattas for whom Dodd is fighting, and who have laid a massive trap for his forces. Once again, this backdrop is only a slightly fictionalized account of an actual historical battle, The Battle of Assaye, which was a major one in the second Anglo-Mahratta War and Wellesley's first battlefield victory.
Arrayed against Wellesley on the Mahratta side are not only the aforementioned Major Dodd but the entirely historical Anthony Pohlmann, a German who had also defected from the Company's service and was well on his way towards becoming a princeling, complete with howdahs and riding elephants for important occasions.
The military action is everything I've come to expect of Cornwell and more. Sometimes battle scenes befuddle me a bit; I'm not an expert on terminology, and so much comes down to maneuvers and terrain that I feel too lazy to actually bother grasping. I skim that stuff and wait for the good bits. Here I'm given information as the lads discover it and assemble the maps in my head just as they do, conversation by conversation, field glass peep by field glass peep, foray by foray.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of good bits, though like this one, immediately after a big-talking dragoon has had his head blown off by artillery fire from two miles away:
Fletcher's mare bolted upstream, but was checked by a fallen tree and so she stood, quivering, and still the trooper's decapitated body was in the saddle and Diomed's rein in his dead hand. The grey horse's left flank was reddened with Fletcher's blood. The trooper had slumped now, his headless trunk leaning eerily to drip blood into the river.I mean, wow. Another, darkly hilarious moment comes a bit later when Sharpe, drafted to do the unfortunate Fletcher's job, learns that Wellesley's "family" (the officers and aides closest to him) have a betting pool going to see who will wind up with the most bullet holes in their clothing at battle's end. Fletcher, of course, was disqualified "on the grounds of extreme carelessness."
Sort of licks Tolkien's Legolas/Gimli orc body count contest hollow, doesn't it?
And yes, I did laugh out loud at Fletcher's disqualification. His death is like Little Nell's; one would have to have a heart of stone not to find it funny as hell. And the chance to laugh a bit is sorely needed, for the second half of the novel, almost wholly taken up with cannon and musket fire, bloody calvary charges and bayonet berserkers (including Sharpe himself at one point) that reading it is a grim, if exhilarating, affair.
And speaking of comic relief, this novel introduces another, somewhat minor character with whom I fell in love immediately, even though he's supposed to be an irritant: Major Horace Stokes, Sharpe's supervisor in the armory who delegates most of the important tasks to Sharpe because Stokes is a complete nerd of a man, obsessed with clockwork and machinery of all kinds:
Every morning and afternoon his servant sent him to the armoury in carefully laundered and pressed clothes, and within an hour Major Stokes would be stripped down to breeches and shirtsleeves and have his hands full of spoke-shaves or saws or awls or adzes.That's my kinda guy! "A fellow don't usually like his ceilings being pulled down to make gun carriages," he says thoughtfully at one point. OMG I want to marry him. Actually, no I don't. He would always be disassembling my kitchen gadgets to make them a little more precise. At any rate, I certainly do hope we get to see more of him as this series progresses! Hey, if Cryptonomicon taught us nothing else, it's that giant military operations need nerds just as much as, if not more than, everybody else does.
There's one more Sharpe story set in India, Sharpe's Fortress, and you'd better believe you'll be hearing about it soon, right here. Crunch crunch.
*Amusingly, Arthur Wellesley seems to display the same penchant for big horses that his mythical namesake does in Cornwell's Warlord trilogy, which I devoured earlier this year. Philips, the pair of them, what?