Monday, October 28, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S BATTLE

In many ways the highest-stakes Sharpe novel so far, Sharpe's Battle is one of the most intense and compulsively readable of Richard Sharpe's adventures in King George III's armies. This is largely again due to the quality of our man's foes; in this book he has two principle adversaries, with a third sort of lurking in the shadows.

Guy Loup, aka El Lobo, aka the Wolf, is a French brigadier whose mission is to engage the partisan guerillas of Spain head on and match them brutality for brutality -- and then some. As the novel opens, he has just committed war crimes on a scale we moderns don't usually associate with the early 19th century, and who but our man Sharpe comes across the carnage? What Sharpe finds provokes him into committing a war crime of his own, but of course the wrongness of Sharpe's action is dwarfed by what Loup has done. Still, there are to be consequences, consequences that loom ominously over the rest of the novel as Sharpe and Loup hunt each other around the Spanish/Portuguese border.

Assisting the Wolf and causing trouble in her own right is the bizarre and fascinating Dona Juanita de Elia, a virago if ever there was one, dressing in the uniforms she collects each time she sleeps with someone from a new regiment, riding astride like a man, a passionate hunter, and a French agent who has lately infiltrated (by which I mean "hooked up with the commander even unto promising to marry him") the Real Compania de Irlandesa, the (fictional) Irish component of the exiled and imprisoned King of Spain's Household Guard. Whom the Spanish government has foisted onto the British Army in order to "help" but who are pretty much useless in the way of so much of the Spanish military seems to come off as useless in these novels, even though none of these men are Spanish. Which uselessness prompts many, including the Iron Duke himself, to conclude betrays the Compania's true nature as some kind of secret French weapon, or at least a deception of some kind. At any rate, they're not to be trusted.

Of course it falls to Sharpe to try lick them into shape, and of course he has trouble doing it, and not only because he's A. Made a formidable new enemy in Loup and B. Got in Dona Juanita a French agent making trouble in the ranks. Because the actual rank and file of the Compania are pretty decent men who just want to do their duty and beat Napoleon, just like anyone else, so of course Sharpe, whose real mission is to make them go away and stop trying to "help", winds up losing his heart to them just in time for everything to go to hell outside the besieged Almeida (which, we may recall, Sharpe blew up a significant portion of at the end of Sharpe's Gold).

Really, what makes this book so refreshing is that it's to the Compania and not another tart-of-the-month that Sharpe loses his heart this time around (he and Dona Juanita experience hate at first sight, also a refreshing change). And that the grim irony of so many of Britain's military hopes are pinned on soldiers from a nation that resents the British and periodically tries to throw off their yoke, is finally addressed (and Sharpe's best friend, Sergeant Harper, and best protector, Major Hogan, are themselves Irish, so it's high time). Its these elements that keep this book from being just another iteration of the same old formula, even as of course events build to the predictable climax of yet another famous grand scale battle on which the fate of Europe depends.

And another, more personal, battle as well, which is the best worst, or possibly the worst best, swordfight ever. You'll understand what I mean when I get to it. Yowza!

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