last saw Sharpe improbably serving as an honorary marine on board a fictional substitute for the ship that came to Admiral Nelson's rescue at a crucial stage of the sea battle at Trafalgar, a hilariously contrived plot in which to find our infantry bastard-hero but still jolly good fun. Sharpe's India adventures thus came to a rollicking closure, and Europe beckons....
As Sharpe's Prey opens, though, Europe, or at least England, has not exactly welcomed our man with open arms -- even though he came home from India a wealthy man (booty and jewels a-plenty!) and an officer to boot. If only that had been all. If only. But alas, the soap opera/shipboard romance/adultery plot that rounded out Sharpe's Trafalgar had its consequences. The upper class hasn't stayed upper by being kind to upstarts like Sharpe, after all. So it is a penniless, cranky, hopeless Sharpe whom we find wandering the streets of London, not even soldiering really as the Rifles regiment to which he was sent has the same prejudice against officers promoted from the ranks as everybody else, and they've made a quartermaster of him. We're off to battle; clean up the barracks, there's a good fellow.
Thank goodness some other good folk returned to England ahead of him, who think well of him as a man of action and effectiveness. Such is Colonel (now General) Baird, whose bacon Sharpe saved in Sharpe's Tiger (at the Siege of Seringapatam), and who, it turns out, has been looking for him for a while, for a special mission in which Sharpe shall become a secret agent!
Well, hey, honorary marine, secret agent, not that far of a leap, eh wot?
Soon Sharpe is heading off to glamorous, sunny, uh, Denmark, in the company of a mysterious half-Danish captain, on a mission to prevent the Danes from letting Napoleon have their navy to replace what he lost at Trafalgar. Pretty straightforward, right? Oh, except this captain is a complete bastard in the evil Major Dodd mode. Um. If a man is definied by the quality of his enemies, well, Sharpe is a most fascinating fellow, isn't he? And one who is never more dangerous than when he is completely screwed.
But so most of the action in this book takes place during Britain's 1807 attack on Denmark, which included a land skirmish the Danes remember as the "battle of the wooden shoes" (because so many of those fighting for the Danes were farmer/militiamen who wore those famous Danish clogs to battle) and several days of intense bombardment of the city of Copenhagen. Which is to say everything takes a bit of a darker tone, as a question that looms through the first two-thirds of the novel is whether Britain actually will bomb the city, which is full of women and children.
I don't recall Sharpe or anyone else worrying so much about civilian bystanders in India.
The bombing campaign itself -- shells and mortar rounds fired from huge wallowing British "bomb ships" in Copenhagen's outer harbor -- is described in harrowing detail, enough so to where it might make some readers queasy (as might depictions of how a spymaster gets interrogated by French agents. Pliers and teeth are involved. Ack). There are no strategic maneuvers to trace out on a map here; it's just brute force and siege warfare. It ain't pretty, but that's the way it was, and is. As Sharpe observes to himself as he sails away from the scene of his latest strange adventures, it's a soldier's world, and Sharpe is a soldier, and while he had plenty on his conscience before his Scandinavian tour, he's learned there was plenty more where that came from, and more still to come, for soon he'll be off to the Peninsula (as in Spain and Portugal) and even more war!
Lord, I do love Sharpe. Reading about him that is. I don't think I'd want to meet him in person. No. No, that wouldn't be very nice at all.