Saturday, July 6, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S ESCAPE

I am now officially obsessed with the Lines of Torres Vedras. Which is hilarious, since I'd never even heard of the Lines of Torres Vedras until a few weeks ago, when I read a highly fictionalized/romanticized version of one possible way those amazing fortification/lines of defense/great big military things were built and paid for in Sharpe's Gold. Now in Sharpe's Escape, I get a closer look at what they were for and how they were intended to -- and actually did -- work.

The principle, basically, is this: build two all but nation-spanning lines of forts and earthworks and walls that keep your enemies from reaching a desirable target, say, the city of Lisbon, and then, quickly before said enemy arrives, practice the most severe scorched earth campaign you possibly can. There must be no food or potable water of any kind anywhere. Armies march on their stomachs, and Napoleon didn't like big bellies so made his armies raid for their suppers. No big vulnerable supply trains from France for Boney! His soldiers must root, hog, or die. Which makes them vulnerable to a plan like the Lines of Torres Vedras, which is basically meant to starve them out if they can't be killed any more quickly. Phew!

And this is not just historical color here, for the plot of Sharpe's Escape is intimately concerned with this plan. Sharpe starts off the novel with an encounter with a Portuguese officer and the officer's brother and their stash of contraband flour they've been planning to sell to the French; he makes a grudging admirer of the former and a bitter enemy of the latter when he foils this plan and destroys the flour. Because what Sharpe needed most of all was another enemy, and this one a great big ruthless brute of a man, a true bastard who could almost be a combination of Sharpe himself and his giant Irish Sergeant, Pat Harper. Except, you know, not funny. Subsequent acts repeat and enlarge on this theme as it turns out the Portuguese duo, even though their country is being invaded by the French and the British are their allies in trying to fight the French off, have an even bigger plan to provide the French with even more food!

It is in the midst of foiling that second, bigger version of this novel's treason plot that Sharpe finds himself in need of an escape, which takes him through a Roman sewer that is still in very foul and recent use in the company of his old friend Jorge Vincente (a Portuguese good guy), Sgt. Harper, a feisty Portuguese woman they've saved from rape, and a pretty Englishwoman who used to be a tutor to the children of the bad Portuguese officer and who Sharpe has also spared from rape. She doesn't like Sharpe too much at first, but ah, doesn't he know how to show a girl a good time?:
"Something strange had happened to her in the last few minutes, as if by undressing and lowering herself into a sewer she had let go of her previous life, of her precarious but determined grip on respectability, and let herself drop into a world of adventure and irresponsibility. She was, suddenly and unexpectedly, happy."
 And now we know the secret of the old Sharpe charm. I wonder how many unacknowledged little Sharpes there wound up being in addition to the daughter he had with Lady Whossername from Sharpe's Trafalgar? I'm sorry, it's lazy and shallow of me, but Sharpe's Chicks are legion and I'm not in the mood to sift through the roster just now.

Anyway, there was nothing in this novel to contradict Dave Slusher's Sharpe Trek theory, and that's fine with me. These are fine adventure stories, and I continue to love and fear their hero devotedly. But no, I would not be one of Sharpe's Chicks. Not in the days before penicillin and whatnot.

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