Very little time has passed since the last of Sharpe's adventures, in which he saved Arthur Wellesley's life and the future Iron Duke made him an officer. As we start this new chapter in his life, Sharpe is getting a foul taste of just how hard it is to be an officer promoted "up from the ranks" in the British army of 1803. He's not of the gentry, so gets no respect from enlisted men or officers, and is coming to regret having tried so hard to get this leg up he's gotten.
But soon he's got bigger problems. Because both of his great enemies, the terrifying and capable British deserter Major Dodd, who is killing his way to becoming Lord of All India fighting for the Mahrathas, and the twitching, malevolent Sergeant Hakeswill, who has been trying for two novels now to get Sharpe killed out of sheer spite and hatred. The one has been chased, along with his army and allies, into India's great fortress in the sky, Gawilghur; the other has turned up among the British soldier's trying to solve the puzzle of how to take that impregnable place, destroy the Mahratha army there, and bring Dodd to justice. Oh, my.
The star of this novel is definitely the fortress itself, hence the title. Imagine George R.R. Martin's Eyrie, defended by thumping huge cannons and approachable only via a narrow ravine that is basically just a shooting gallery for said cannon. But before you can get to the ravine, you have to pound your way through an outer fort. While the fort's defenders shoot at you with thumping huge cannons.
Fortunately for Sharpe and his pals, the walls of these forts are old and ill-maintained. Also, the people in charge within are a cowardly princeling who just wants to be left alone to sport with his wives and concubines, and the enemy rajah's brother, who is quite a capable soldier, but whose faith in his men is so weak that he won't let the splendid attack dog, Dodd, do anything but kick his heels and take the occasional potshot with one of those newfangled rifle thingies. So the British are free to build their road right up to the perfect spot to hammer away at the walls with their cannon, and everybody has enough time on their hands to plot against each other. Because Hakeswill. And his buddy Captain Torrance, who already had it in for Sharpe because Sharpe's first act upon being assigned to help the Captain is to expose the Captain's treachery. D'oh!
And I haven't even talked about the treachery among the bad guys. Oh, is it delicious.
Bappoo's survivors, betrayed by Dodd, were trapped between two forces. They were stranded in a hell above emptiness, a slaughter in the high hills. There were screams as men tumbled to their deaths far beneath and still the fire kept coming. It kept coming until there was nothing left but quivering men crouching in terror on a road that was rank with the stench of blood, and then the redcoats moved forward with bayonets.Yowza! Betrayal and the Ravine of Death!
Again, the tension of whether or not Sharpe is going to survive all of this is robbed of the modern reader who knows he's got a future with a rifle company in Europe, but Cornwell finds plenty of other ways to keep the reader eagerly turning pages. We don't know how Sharpe is going to get out of his own personal very difficult predicaments, just as we don't know (unless we peek at Wikipedia or something) how the hell the British are going to get through the Ravine of Death, or anything else, for that matter. Once again, Cornwell has done a skillful job of combining the exploits of real historical figures (Oh, Colonel Kenny!) with those of his semi-fictional villains (Dodd) and his own characters (Hakeswill, Major John Stokes, Sharpe himself) into something seamless and compulsively readable.
Most gratifying to me is the return of Major Stokes, whom you may recall from my last go-around in Sharpe's universe became quite a favorite of mind. Here he's put in charge of building the road that will allow the British to haul their cannons, shot, powder, and selves into attack range and of cobbling together some semblance of defenses for them as they haul. He doesn't get a lot of scenes, but he shines in all his nerdy glory in those he gets, and as one of Sharpe's few allies, quite well deserves to.
Also fun is Ahmed, an Arab boy whom Sharpe rescues from the precursor battle that opens the novel and who becomes Sharpe's fanatically loyal servant. Several major plot points revolve around this little hellion, whose command of the King's English improves somewhat over the course of the story but since he's learned it from Sharpe contains rather more "buggers" than a schoolmaster might like.
It continues to take almost all the willpower I have not to just plow through all of these Sharpe novels in one swoop. They're wonderfully written, utterly absorbing, thrilling, fun, bloody, character-driven, full of dashing heroics and madcap schemes -- everything I like in a novel. And they keep getting better, these books!
But I think if I did just go all Sharpe, all the time, I might end up doing something foolish when I was done. Like joining the army. Which would be pretty stupid. What would they do with a 42-year-old fat chick who can't even shoot straight, I ask you?