Monday, February 25, 2008

Sharpe's Triumph

I just finished Sharpe's Triumph by Bernard Cornwell. I've read a dozen books in this series now and really enjoyed all of them. There are only a few left to me, including the climactic Waterloo, but I saw there was a newer book covering events earlier in Sharpe's career, so I took it up before pressing on to the defeat of Napoleon.

Triumph concerns the Maratha War of 1803, a time when the British were still battling in India under the leadership of the newly minted general Arthur Wellesley, whom the world knows better as the Duke of Wellington and the man who defeated Napoleon. Sharpe is a sergeant when the novel opens and the book tells the story, now famous for Sharpe readers, of how this fairly green sgt. saves the general's life and earns himself a rare field commission for bravery, thus becoming an officer.

The novel was spectacularly absorbing. Cornwell uses a third person omnitient viewpoint to great effect. Through this lens we get not only the perspective of Sharpe and his enemy Sgt. Hakeswill, but Wellesley himself, three of the enemy leaders and several other minor characters. The shifts never seem abrupt to me, as Cornwell effortlessly draws the "camera" back between close-ups into the minds of the characters.

No one does battles like Bernard Cornwell, and even after the spectacular descriptions of sieges and skirmishes from other books, his depiction of the Battle of Assaye is exciting and detailed, with great respect shown to the bravery of the Scottish soldiers whose professional performance and ferocity routed an enemy seven times their number. These books are not for the faint of heart (yeah, yeah, what am I doing reading them then? lol) and there were times when the brutality was almost overwhelming. Cornwell delivers war that is both heroic and beastly, a great waste and a great triumph in all its chaos and carnage. As bloody as it gets, Cornwell writes with a a brutal poetry of death.

Like most of the Sharpe books, Triumph does follow the familiar pattern, with a beautiful woman who Sharpe beds, of course, and ending with a battle. But once again the tropes and familiar plot devices are minimized by great storytelling and writing.

Bernard Cornwell's advice for aspiring novelists.
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