Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S RIFLES

"He might not be a born officer, but by God he was a born soldier. He was the son of a whore, bereft of God, but a God-damned soldier."

I've decided that the best way to approach the Sharpe series -- in which the publication order differs so radically from the publication order as to seem all but an exercise in randomization -- the way one does when reading stories about Conan the Cimmerian. There might be some narrative carry-over from novel to novel, but it's best to just regard them as discrete stories that happen to be about a guy with the same name and more or less the same character.

I say this because Sharpe's Rifles is the point where a lot of people who have chosen to read these books in chronological order start complaining about inconsistencies. The book was written some half a dozen years after those of the original core series, but cast as a prequel to them -- and the books I've read so far were written many, many years after this one, but take place earlier in Sharpe's career.

So in a lot of ways, the Richard Sharpe in Sharpe's Rifles bears little resemblance to the character I've grown to love through his adventures in India, at sea, and in Denmark, except in the ways described in the ur-Cornwellian sentence I quoted at the beginning of this post. He's still pretty uncouth and brutal, still an all but conscience-less and cold-blooded killer, but he seems only to have honed those qualities from his prior adventures* but not to have experienced the character building that came with them. To wit: he is unsure in his authority (though it could be argued that the years he has spent as a downtrodden Quartermaster for the 95th Rifles might have eroded the confidence he gained in India and Denmark), a complete sucker for anything in a skirt (see my asterisk below) and taking lessons in leadership from the Spanish major Bias Vivar that he really ought already to have absorbed from the good examples of his protectors in India like McCandless.

But these are small quibbles, and become meaningless once one has agreed to treat the novels as things outside of time and narrative continuity. Especially when the material at hand is so good, as it is here. For Sharpe's Rifles has everything I've come to expect from a Sharpe story: over-the-top adventure (here a ragtag band of survivors of a famous retreat across Spain is teaming up with a small-but-elite cadre of the Spanish army commanded by the aforementioned Don Bias on a mission to bring a Holy McGuffin to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostella and thus create a new legend to inspire the Spanish peasantry to rise up against the hated French invaders), internecine bickering, inspired combat tactics, cold chivalry among enemies, and all the fighting, drinking and swearing (if not, this time, the whoring) one might expect from a good piece of military fiction.

Here, too, is an origin story of sorts, though its significance is lost to chronological readers who have not osmotically absorbed a certain level of meta-knowledge about the series -- for it is here that Sharpe and his gonna-be best friend, Sergeant Harper, meet for the first time. And it's a pretty good meet as those go -- Harper almost stages a mutiny against Sharpe! -- but it's still not as good as Aubrey and Maturin and the concert at Port Mahon. But that's maybe not a fair comparison, right? I'm sure back in the 1980s when only the original core Peninsular War books existed, fans of Sharpe/Harper were delighted to observe this meeting, but for us chronological readers starting in the 21st century, it will never have the same power.

Still, cracking good stuff. Again, lots of explorations of how the rifle changed warfare, and how swords still matter, even if one sword is in the hand of a guy astride a big horse and the other in the hand of a guy on foot who ran out of ammo or out of time to reload his weapon, lots of amusing ruses de guerre... and then there's the attack on Santiago itself, which doesn't hold a candle to the big set-piece battles we saw in India, but is still very satisfying indeed.

Truly, Sharpe never disappoints.

*At least, thank goodness, his prior adventures don't involve a lot of ret-conning; the allusions to his deeds in India, at Seringapatam and Gawalghur, etc. match up with the stories I've read. Well, except for Lady Grace, his lover from Sharpe's Waterloo who died after giving him a son before Sharpe's Prey. I'm pretty sure that once you've bedded a gorgeous noblewoman you're not going to be so terribly overawed by a mere member of the impecunious country gentry, however mischievous and cute.

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