Sunday, March 03, 2013

Sharpe's Escape

Sharpe's Escape front cover
For a change I thought I'd do a short book review.

Title: Sharpe's Escape
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Genre: Historical, War
Setting: Napoleonic Wars
Series: Sharpe
Published: 2004

I got interested in Sharpe via the ITV TV series, this novel is one of those written after the TV series.

It is 1810 and the French are making yet another attempt to invade Portugal, the Duke of Wellington leads a combined Anglo-Portuguese Army to defend Lisbon. Captain Sharpe commands the light company of the South Essex Regiment but has taken a disliking to his new second-in-command, Lieutenant Slingsby, the Colonel's brother-in-law. While implementing Wellington's scorched earth policy Sharpe makes an enemy of Ferragus, a Portuguese businessman / thug. Sharpe and his offsider, Sergeant Harper, get separated from the regiment during the retreat after the Battle of Bussaco and have a rollicking series of adventures.

Sharpe's Escape contains a couple of carefully described battle scenes, separated by some individual adventures and introducing a new, spirited and pretty girl to fall in love with our hero. The style of this Sharpe novel is pretty standard.  There is plenty of attention to military details, and a bit of social detail and historical overview thrown in. Sharpe is grumpy for much of the novel, which affects his decision making.  His confrontational nature and private vendettas with Ferragus and Slingsby drive the novel.

Unlike other British officers of the period who typically bought their commissions, Sharpe was promoted from the ranks and is a man who makes his way in the world due to his skill and resourcefulness as a soldier and inspire of his lack of social skills. This dependence on skill makes him more like a modern man and hence easier for the reader to identify with. It also makes him an outsider to the officer class, with a sergeant as his closest friend; allowing Bernard Cornwell to describe the life and concerns of both the officers and other ranks.

Sharpe also uses a Baker rifle rather than a musket or pistol. The rifle at the time was a relatively expensive high-tech weapon, issued to skirmishers rather than ordinary line soldiers. Skirmisher used tactics that seem more sensible to people from the 21st century than those used by line infantry at the time, and skirmishers also got more interesting jobs. Both of these give the author more scope for drawing the reader in and giving Sharpe opportunity to have adventures away from the Army.

Similarly Sarah Fry appeals both to Sharpe and readers because of her independence from and lack of fear of men. An attitude that probably wasn't characteristic of middle class young women of the time.

Sharpe's Escape is well paced, while there is plenty of description it rarely gets in the way of the action. A couple of passages stretch credulity but nowhere near as much as the average action film. This book kept my attention so I finished it more quickly than most books I have read in the last 12 months.

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