Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sharpe's Havoc, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I'm looking at yet another book in the Sharpe series, Sharpe's Havoc, and I honestly hate to say it but I feel like this is another one of those books where we're in between waiting for things to happen. In the last book, Sharpe ended up, somewhat accidentally, in command of what was left of his company of the 95th Rifles, trying to make their way back to British lines in Portugal while evading the seemingly endless hordes of Frenchmen. Sharpe and his two dozen or so riflemen are still in Portugal, despite all of the 95th being safely back home in Britain at the moment, having spent the intervening time protecting a British military engineer who's been mapping Portugal. Very soon Wellington arrives to take command of the British forces in Portugal and Marshal Soult, who looked like he'd have an easy march to Lisbon, is now on the run and trying to extricate his army to Spain.

As Cornwell himself says, Sharpe has no business being in Portugal at the time because nobody of the 95th Rifles were in Portugal at that point. Sharpe's in an ad hoc situation only loosely attached to the army and spends a considerable portion of the book trapped behind enemy lines which puts him outside the British chain of command and forces Sharpe to rely on his own best judgment. I will say seeing Sharpe make himself a royal nuisance for the French is definitely more interesting than him sitting around the barracks in Britain so I can't say I blame the author for giving him something to do, even if it stretches the bounds of historical authenticity.

Plot-wise Sharpe is tasked with keeping an eye on Colonel Christopher, a man from the Foreign Office sent to gauge popular opinion in Portugal and to see if it's really worth Britain's time and effort to send troops to fight the French. Out of deference to his position in the Foreign Office, Christopher has been brevetted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, despite having no military experience whatsoever. For his own reasons, Christopher is not thrilled at the prospect of having Sharpe and his ragamuffin band of riflemen following him around the Portuguese countryside and is determined to get rid of Sharpe as soon a possible. It is only the winds of war that keep the two from going their separate ways.

Honestly, I feel like this book is just killing time. Wellington's arrival marks a turning point in the Peninsular campaign, but they're far from driving the French back across the Pyrenees. It's like Cornwell had some time for Sharpe to go on an adventure and kill some Frenchmen, and so that's what Sharpe did. And in a way I'm okay with that. The books are marvelously well researched and provide interesting insights into military life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but there's not a lot of substance beyond that.

And I like the Sharpe books, I really do. It's easy reading and while Sharpe is a brutal and vicious character, there's still something admirable about him and the fact that he's got more self-control than a lot of the other soldiers in the series. (Which is a pretty realistic portrayal of warfare at this time as well.) But they're just sort of quick, fun little reads for me when I feel like reading something set during the Napoleonic era. And I guess that's okay. Not everything I read has to be great literature.

Overall, the book's okay. If you're a fan of the Sharpe series you'll probably enjoy this like all the other books you've no doubt read by now. But if you're not a fan yet I'd recommend looking elsewhere for an introduction because this is definitely in the middle of things to say the least.

- Kalpar

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