Thursday, June 23, 2016

Sharpe's Prey, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I'm returning to my guilty pleasure, the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, which I've long since given up fretting about the Forrest Gump effect and I'm coming to learn to just accept it. This week I'm continuing in chronological order with Sharpe's Prey, a book set during the 1807 British expedition to Denmark which resulted in the shelling of Copenhagen and the seizure of the Danish fleet by the British. To provide a very, very short explanation of historic context: after Trafalgar in 1805 little Denmark was the only country with a navy large enough to challenge the Royal Navy of Britain. Denmark was officially neutral but Napoleon was exerting considerable pressure to get the Danes to turn their fleet over to the French. (And in a treaty between France and Russia, Russia had graciously granted the Danish fleet to the French, something which Denmark had not been appraised of whatsoever.)

Britain responded by requesting, rather forcefully, that Denmark hand their fleet over to the Royal Navy's protective custody. Denmark flatly refused, much as they had every right to do, it being their navy, and the British responded with a military invasion which resulted in the events mentioned above. Denmark was driven into an alliance with France, but with their navy gone they were largely irrelevant in the ensuing campaigns. Cornwell admits that this is an event not often remembered by the British and widely regarded as a bit of an embarrassment. After all, shelling a city and specifically attacking civilian targets would be regarded as a war crime today so you can understand why the British may be reluctant to talk about it. However I feel, despite it being a work of fiction, that Cornwell manages to talk about the events with a certain amount of respect and dismay at the needless casualties and destruction.

Aside from the historical material, I feel like this is very much an in-between book that kind of ties between the earlier stories of Sharpe's experiences in India, which were pretty interesting in their own right, and Sharpe's later adventures in the European theaters of the Napoleonic Wars. (Although this and the previous four books were actually written after some of the later books.) There are a lot of developments between the last book, Sharpe's Trafalgar, and this one, which I feel are things that should have been shown to us rather than told.

Sharpe finally joins his new regiment, the 95th Rifles, which I have the benefit of knowing he's going to stick with through Waterloo. However once again he's snubbed by the aristocratic officers and assigned the odious duty of quartermaster, left feeling like he'll never fit in. On top of that he get to enjoy a few months of bliss with Lady Grace before she, and their child, die leaving him alone and, thanks to lawyers, poor once again and looking for a way to make some money and get out of the army. These are all important events in the life of Richard Sharpe and I feel like we should have seen at least some of them, but instead they're just told to us in the book. It left me feeling somewhat disoriented and like I missed a book. Maybe there's a short story that I missed that helps bridge this gap, but otherwise it's something we should have been shown instead of told.

The plot otherwise involves Sharpe traveling with Captain Lavisser, who's been dispatched to Denmark with over forty-thousand guineas in advance of the main fleet with the hope the Danish will peacefully hand their fleet over without bloodshed. No such expedition occurred, at least as far as we know, (although according to Cornwell the British spent millions on bribes during this era) but it provides a convenient excuse to get Sharpe into the right place at the right time. Although in an interesting aversion to what I've noticed in earlier books, beyond providing some basic intelligence for his superiors, Sharpe doesn't really do anything that affects the outcome of the attack on Copenhagen. He's really wrapped up in his cloak-and-daggers plot that moves him off of the battlefield and into the shadowy world of diplomacy. A world where he doesn't feel entirely comfortable if he's being honest. It's like Sharpe gets his own story and the Denmark expedition and bombardment of Copenhagen is just a convenient backdrop more than an integral part of the story. It's not bad. In fact on reflection I kind of enjoy it, but it's definitely different.

I'm left, though, with the feeling that Cornwell, and Sharpe for that matter, are just killing time until the serious business starts. And it makes me wonder why this book was written at all, beyond Cornwell just deciding to do something different and talk about an often overlooked event in history. Sharpe's already made it back to England after Trafalgar, and he's already joined the 95th by the events of the next book, Sharpe's Rifles. It's like there was an embarrassing gap in Sharpe's military record where it looked like he wasn't really doing anything and it needed to be filled in by something to make it look better. Sort of like the Pratchett jokes about towns being on maps only to help fill up embarrassingly large blank areas. It's an interesting diversion, but ultimately still a diversion.

Overall, much like the rest of this series it was pretty enjoyable for me. I'm a weird fan of military fiction and I like how Cornwell's able to show his research and make Sharpe's world, two centuries gone, really come to life. I think I really liked how Sharpe didn't save the day in any spectacular fashion, but I'm sure that he'll go back to meddling with history soon enough.

- Kalpar

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