Thursday, April 9, 2015

Sharpe's Fortress, by Bernard Cornwell

So, after taking what I realized was nearly a year-long hiatus, I decided to go ahead and check out the next (chronological) book in the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, Sharpe's Fortress. This book deals with newly-minted Ensign Sharpe and his struggles in becoming an officer. It's also Sharpe's (and by extension, Wellington's) last adventure in India, before they both return to Europe to take the fight to those dastardly Frenchmen. This book in specific focuses on Wellington's last campaign in India, the battle of Argaum and the siege of Gawilghur, which helped to further cement British dominance in India.

As I've mentioned before whenever I read a historical fiction novel, I usually have extreme pet peeves with the genre in general. The worst is when the books are poorly researched, which thankfully is not the case here, but the Sharpe series in general seems to suffer extremely from what I like to call the Forrest Gump effect: where one fictional person is responsible for so many important things in history and it turns out they were best friends with (or simply met) most of the people we usually read about in the history books. Of course, in the case of Sharpe it makes sense to have his career follow Wellington's because Wellington is much easier to research, opposed to some poor blighter in the ranks. But I often find myself pretending that this all happens in an alternate timeline separate from our own so that it all makes sense.

Of course, there's also the author's need to give their main character something to do as well, which leads to fictional characters elbowing in on the real achievements of historical people. To his credit, Cornwell does explain that the 33rd Regiment of Foot was nowhere near the Siege of Gawilghur, and it was in fact Captain Campbell of the 94th Regiment who manged to storm the walls with his company and open the gates for the British attackers. Captain Campbell does get a cameo, but within the narrative Sharpe is credited with the idea. I am a little worried about the next book, Sharpe's Trafalgar, which I feel may be the most egregious example of this casual alteration of history, considering Sharpe is a footslogger of the infantry and has no logical reason to be at a naval engagement. At least, as far as I can tell, anyway.

I'm also getting the feeling that the Sharpe books are going to be fairly formulaic, which is an issue I ran into with the Warhammer 40,000 version of this series, Gaunt's Ghosts. There's a war going on, Sharpe has to do some fighting, Sharpe fights, Sharpe wins, day is saved. Well, maybe not saved, but carried for the British at any rate. And I can see how this might drive people away from the series because (at least since we know Sharpe survives at least to Waterloo), that he's going to at least survive that long, so where's the tension? While the series was new, I'm sure the concern that Sharpe might not survive was very real for readers, but that might make it a tough sell for new readers.

So despite my issues, why do I keep reading the Sharpe books? Well, quite simply, I really like Sharpe as a character. Sharpe is in many ways, the ultimate underdog. Now promoted to an officer, Sharpe has been shoved into a world he doesn't belong to, and his fellow officers constantly remind him that he doesn't belong there. The officer corps of the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars is dominated by aristocrats and gentlemen, people who are able to pay the hundreds or thousands of pounds necessary to gain a commission. But Sharpe is a common, lower-class person. Maybe not much in common with you or me, but an ultimate underdog who's been kicked around a lot of his life and hasn't had a lot going for him. And it feels good to watch Sharpe fight, to watch him struggle and, ultimately, succeed. It just feels right somehow, and because of that I love reading these books.

And I think that's really the main selling point of this series, the character of Sharpe. He is the main character after all. There's a certain amount of charm in his defiance against all odds and determination to fight and survive, no matter the odds. Sure, he may be uneducated and perhaps a little brutal, relishing in the fight a bit much, but that doesn't make him any less fun to watch. As long as I'm still enjoying the character of Sharpe, which I think I will, then I'll keep reading these books, no matter how historically silly they may get.

- Kalpar

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