OK, I'll admit, I've been putting off reading this one just because the very idea of it seemed ludicrous and forced to me. As has been very firmly established, our man Richard Sharpe is a daring, lucky and resourceful infantry officer. Infantry. The guy can barely ride a horse, but he's the devil in a red coat on foot. But see, Trafalgar was a naval battle. As in between ships. Admiral Nelson. Sailing maneuvers (or lack thereof: just go right at 'em). Ramming. Boarding parties. Being on the water.
So how could Sharpe have a Trafalgar that wasn't preposterous and contrived?
Answer: well, he can't: but the contriving minimizes the preposterousness and soon the reader forgets her pre-book scoffing altogether. After all, Richard does have to get from India back to England somehow, and we readers have already swallowed his just happening to be the unknown man who killed the Tippoo Sultan and the man who "really" found the way into Gawilgur.
Anyway, lesson well learned: always trust Uncle Bernard.
Speaking of things we learn, Sharpe's Trafalgar is also where we learn, not only that Sharpe has sea legs, but that he doesn't require the heat of battle to be a killer. Oh, we've had hints of this before, witness his attempt in the first book to feed his Wile E. Coyote nemesis to a tiger, but what we see in his shipboard relationship with his would-be blackmailer*, Mister Braithwaite, shows new depths of cold-bloodedness. Sharpe has never known an even-handed, just application of society's rules and laws, so he doesn't feel particularly bound by them. Dude.
And Sharpe has a lot to learn as well, here, for he has in the person of his friend Captain Chase (whom he rescued from a nasty crew on land in the novel's prologue) an example of leadership like he's not seen before. His Pucelle**, on which Sharpe finds himself after he's sort-of-rescued from a captured Indiaman, is a great big ship of the line, a floating artillery battery, and, that rarity of rarities, a happy ship. How does he do that?
"Sharpe watched Chase, for he reckoned he had still a lot to learn about the subtle business of leading men. He saw that the captain did not secure his authority by recourse to punishment, but rather by expecting high standards and rewarding them. He also hid his doubts."From what I know about Sharpe's future with a rifle company in the Napoleonic wars (these novels have such cultural currency that it's almost as impossible not to know Sharpe's going to end up a lieutenant in Spain as it is not to know what Rosebud is), these are good lessons for him to be getting, very important for his transformation from a gutter rat whose first (chronological) scene in fiction is of him getting flogged to a man who inspires loyalty.
The scenes with Sharpe and Chase are also a nice antidote to the soap opera adultery plot that comprises more than half this book.*** Ugh.
But the real star here is the famous naval battle, into which the Pucelle more or less stumbles. Cornwell gives Patrick O'Brian a run for his ramming, gunning, sailing money here; one could fully imagine the Surprise being somewhere in the smoke (but of course we know it wasn't. Sillies. The Surprise was as real as... as the Pucelle!). The action is described in loving detail, with an emphasis on its chaotic nature, for we are seeing it from the perspective of an infantry soldier serving as an "honorary marine" who barely understands what's going on.
And yes, Cornwell succumbs to the temptation to substitute his fictional ship for the real one that rescued Admiral Nelson's flagship just as the French were about to board her, and also to the temptation to make Sharpe the person Nelson finds most interesting at his pre-battle breakfast. But I ask you: who wouldn't? Scenes such as those are a big part of why historical fiction is fun, if one isn't simply writing a fictionalized biography of an actual historical figure the way, say, Jean Plaidy does. But yes, I rolled my eyes a bit. But I was also smiling. It's a Sharpe book, after all.
It's just not the best Sharpe book. Hey, they can't all be.
Onward to Europe!
*Of course the blackmail is over a woman. Cornwell knows and respects the principle of Chekhov's Gun; if a pretty woman shows up in the first act of a Sharpe novel, Sharpe is going to become her lover, even if, as in this case, she is married to an obnoxious nobleman.
**"Pucelle" in English is "virgin." Ho ho!
**The other half, at least until the Pucelle stumbles across the battle at Trafalgar, is a chase plot. While Sharpe is schtupping the nobleman's wife in every unseen corner of the ship that isn't too disgusting, the ship is chasing a French one, the Revenant, to which Sharpe's frenemy and also a suspected spy jumped after it took the first ship that Sharpe and co embarked on, the Calliope. It's all very exciting and Patrick O'Brian-ish, and I would have much preferred it without all the tedious adultery, but I'm just sort of like that, you know?