Friday, May 17, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S HAVOC

Starting with a desperate evacuation of a town as an invading French army completes its conquest of northern Portugal and a pontoon bridge fails and sends hundreds of civilians to their crushed, watery deaths and ending with a freakily similar battle at another bridge in which the French receive more than a little poetic justice, Sharpe's Havoc is a hell of a fine read, like all of these books are.

It's a funny old thing, though, reading a series like Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe books. But then again, the Sharpe books are rather a funny old series. For originally, there were just a few of these, and they were all set during and in the midst of the Peninsular War. Then they got very popular, so popular that they were adapted for television. The TV show, featuring the awesome likes of Sean Bean and Pete Postlethwaite and David Troughton, was very popular as well, so popular that there grew to be demand for more Sharpe books and TV adaptations of those books and somewhere in the middle of all of this came the notion that perhaps some prequel novels detailing Sharpe's pre-Napoleonic adventures might go over well and...

The result is a great heap of prose books that may be likened unto a long and convoluted run of a Big Two superhero comic book, rich with minutia and ret-conning and related geek-bait (the geeks in question this time being military history buffs, and damned if Cornwell isn't turning me into one of those. I found myself doting over the details of how Baker rifles work and the finer points of using case shot [and learning where the term "shrapnel" came from]), daunting in the extreme for the newcomer, who has two basic choices in how to approach this mass of material:* in publication order, or in chronological order. Choose publication order and you're going to be all over the place, historically speaking, starting out on the Peninsula in the middle of the Talavera Campaign in 1809, proceeding more or less chronologically for a while, but pretty soon you're lurching back and forth in time as though you had a TARDIS, not coming to, say, our man's adventures in India in  1799 until you've read a whole lot of novels. The thought of that makes my brain hurt a little, so I opted to read the novels in chronological order. As I've mentioned elsewhere, the fact that said order begins in India made that choice even more appealing.

But reading chronologically is not without its perils, too. While I'm sure the publication order readers just see an ever ascending level of quality in the writing, the characterizations, the battle scenes, etc. as they move on in the series, we chronological readers must weather lots of unexpected peaks and valleys, not to mention what seem like glaring omissions (for instance, last novel, Sharpe's Rifles, contained no references to Lady Grace, whom Sharpe wooed and won in the middle of the battle of Trafalgar, because when SR was written she had not yet been written into existence and readers are presented with a Sharpe that seems to have little experience with women except as casual whores, which is jarring for those of us who have read our man's Indian adventures and seen him happily, if still somewhat temporarily, paired with many lovely ladies). But we weather them happily, because Sharpe is awesome.

But so, Sharpe's Havoc is very much a case in point. It takes place not long after the events chronicled in SR, but while SR is a very early book (though still not the very first; the very first Sharpe novel is... the next one after SH in the chronological list), presenting Sharpe as greener and less confident than we've gotten used to seeing him, SH was written some 20 odd years later, after Cornwell had written many more novels, including the Indian prequels, and developed his firm and masterful command of the art of writing a Sharpe story.

Which is to say that from my perspective, SH looks to be one of the best, if not the best, of the Sharpe novels, and certainly my favorite since Sharpe's Fortress, the best of the three India books. Sharpe is 100% Sharpe, smart, capable, cunning, sometimes cruel, stubborn and devastatingly creative, qualities he desperately needs as he struggles not only against the French, against the deprivations and duties of wartime abroad, but also against the machinations of yet another turncoat superior officer. His main foe this time around, Colonel Christopher, can't hold a candle to Major Dodd in the scary-danger department being more of a political schemer and a misguided idealist, but that makes him all the more actually dangerous to Sharpe**, who can handle any jerk on the battlefield or in skirmishes of all sorts, but who is still pretty rough and clueless when it comes to society and the way it works -- or is supposed to work.

And of course, Christopher is far from Sharpe's only problem. His men are still cut off from the rest of their regiment and sort of juking their way through the war at Arthur Wellesley's whim. The Iberian peninsula is crawling with French soldiers. The ordinary people are unreliable; many passionately committed to maintaining their independence from Napoleon's empire but ill-trained and ill-equipped and looking to people like Sharpe to make up for their deficiencies. Generals and other superiors have high expectations for him, too, but are a bit out of touch with what he's dealing with, sometimes by nature, sometimes due to circumstances, and sometimes because of Christopher's machinations. And then there's the novel's Girl, this time the pretty young heiress to a British wine dynasty who has grown up in Portugal and refuses to leave it despite the danger. Thank goodness Sharpe is too busy to do the predictable by her, this time around, at least.

Does SH feel at times a bit formulaic? Yes, yes it does at times. Cornwell is going back to the same wells - turncoat officers, pretty women in need of rescue but not entirely helpless (thus even more attractive to Sharpe), natives/partisans of both kinds: noble/proud and gutless/scheming, big sweeping battle scenes and expertly presented representations of the ordinary soldier's life - but they're good wells to go back to, yielding high quality stuff every time. It's still mostly fresh, here, but as I read, part of me sort of longed to go back to the unevenness and occasional roughness of the earlier books as being more likely to have actual surprises in store for me. Here, everybody seems just a little embalmed. Consummately embalmed, but embalmed all the same.

Despite that, SH is a fantastic read, amusing, emotional, bloody and thrilling. If I haven't convinced you to give Sharpe a try by now, seven books into the series, I despair of you. I really do. It's everything most of my people read books for and then some.

*Well, perhaps three, if you want to count just reading them in any random order. Or many more than three if you want to treat every possible reading order as a separate choice. But come on.

**Though dude, do not make off with Sharpe's telescope, a gift from Sir Arthur Wellesley he has cherished since receiving it (and his battlefield commission) on saving the future Iron Duke's life back in India.

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