Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S COMPANY

In a lot of ways, Sharpe's Company can feel like Sharpe's Fortress revisited, though in a slightly diminished capacity. Fortress had Sharpe leading the charge and finding the vulnerability in India's awesome mountaintop fortress of Gawilghur where Company has him "merely" having to do so to take the Spanish fortress-town of Badajoz, a much less impressive target, but there are challenges and complications to keep things fresh, oh yes.

Though the fortress angle is not the only parallel with Fortress. Oh no. For Sharpe's Company brings back one of Sharpe's most entertaining enemies, the malevolently cunning Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill -- last seen in Sharpe's Fortress, once again failing to kill our hero, but not for lack of trying.

Here Hakeswill surfaces as a new member of the South Essex, the battalion to whose fortunes Sharpe and his Rifles have been married for several Peninsular novels now, and he arrives just in time to see Sharpe laid somewhat low: his latest field promotion to Captain has finally and formally been rejected by the British army's top brass (over Wellington's objections, to be sure) and Sharpe is just a lieutenant again, though still sort of running his Light Company, at least until its new captain arrives -- a captain who is a proper high-born gentleman of means, and who purchased his commission like you're supposed to.

That system of the hereditary upper-class buying their way into officer-dom has always blown me away, as an American who used to take it for granted that the military is and should be a meritocracy. A lifetime of reading stories proving me wrong, at least in the case of the European military, hasn't robbed me of this basic reaction; I suppose by now it's obvious that I'll never really lose it, no matter how often the injustices of the purchased commission system are exploited for drama.

And speaking of obvious, if it's not by now, continuity, as far as the Sharpe novels are concerned, is a matter for other series, as is driven home anew early on in Sharpe's Company as we learn that his lover Teresa, badass Spanish partisan and beautiful babe, has given birth to a daughter, his daughter, and we see him acting like it's his first an only child even though those of us who are reading his adventures in chronological, rather than publication, order know that he's already got a daughter by one Lady Grace, whom he met on his homeward journey from India. The late Lady Grace having been a lady, her upper-class family would rather not acknowledge Richard's part in the creation of their granddaughter and so have taken the girl away from him, so perhaps he's just done a really, really good job of blotting this real first child from his thoughts?

Anyway, fiction. Which this is. And the Sharpe novels are a special case, there. To the point where I think that from now on, if anyone asks me in what order to read them, I might just say publication order. The discontinuity might jar less that way, even as the adventures leap about in time. Sharpe already spends lots of time in Doctor Who jeopardy; he might as well just be experienced as full on timey-wimey, amirite?

At any rate, Sharpe's Company. As I've mentioned, Sharpe's most enthusiastic (if not always most effective because batdung insane) enemy is back and up to his old tricks, and Sharpe has been put somewhat out to pasture for a while, suddenly in charge of the battalion's "wives and mules and baggage" instead of his Light Company and his beloved Rifles (who themselves are being, cough, strongly encouraged to ditch their threadbare green Rifles jackets for good old British army bright red-and-pipeclay, and to exchange their Baker rifles for plain old muskets, further insulting Sharpe's pride). Which he bitches about to his sub-protector, Major Hogan (who looks after Sharpe for Wellington), and gets shot down with a speech that could come straight from the mouth of his Author trying to keep this swashbuckling bastard under control: ""Just because you've been allowed to swan about like a bloody pirate for years doesn't mean you shouldn't take your turn at the real work." This made me laugh, even though it's precisely Sharpe's swanning around like a bloody pirate that makes him such fun to read, even when his adventures start getting formulaic.

Swan on, Sharpe. Swan on.

1 comment:

  1. Kate

    Great review as always from you.

    I'm also 'irked' by the lack of continuity caused by publication order reading but I seem to recall that Lady Grace died in childbirth and the baby with her. Or did I dream that?


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