Sharpe's Escape, by Bernard Cornwell, Harper Collins 2004, 450pp.
This is the second Sharpe novel that I have read, after Sharpe's Tiger, and it is clear that I will keep going, although Escape is the 20th written, so I am doing it out of order.
More than half the book portrays one battle, that of the ridge at Bussaco, and the writing just sweeps you along. The British, under Wellington, were outnumbered by the French under Masséna, but held the high ground, and made a decisive victory. Masséna is portrayed as more interested in his 18-year-old mistress! Sharpe, of course, saves the day at various junctures. The escape of the title is from Coimbra, which the French sack mercilessly after the battle. Sharpe manages to foil some evil Portuguese collaborators, deprive the French of supplies, and get away with a beautiful English governess (after a surprisingly erotic scene in a sewer).
Another surprise, for the French and for me, was the English fortifications around Lisbon. "The Lines of Torres Vedras, built without the knowledge of the British government, had cost two hundred thousand pounds. They were the greatest, and most expensive defensive works ever made in Europe." (Cornwell recommends Wellington's Peninsular War if you want to visit the site.) With history like this, and zippy writing, it hardly matters if the characters are formulaic.
Stephen wrote: If you're getting into Sharpe, you ought to discuss with Ruth, who is the World's Greatest Living Expert on the Sharpe novels. You might also try reading Allan Mallinson, who does soldiers of the same period but writing from the perspective of a retired senior British army officer, encouraged by O'Brian. And have you read John Keegan, probably England's leading military historian? I have just finished The Mask of Command, which compares the generalship of Alexander, Wellington, Ulysses S Grant and Hitler agains the yardstick of heroic/antiheroic/false heroic leadership. Some very elegant and acute reflections. A most perceptive man.
I replied: I read The Face of Battle a long time ago...it's why I knew what Agincourt was when we visited it in France (several times).
Paul wrote: what is it about the english that they have these sort of long sequences of historical novels (the boat guy, the flashman guy, this guy). Any insight?
I replied: I was reflecting along these lines myself. I hated history as a kid -- it bored me to death. Now that I am older, I find history in general much more interesting, but American history still not very interesting. I suppose some people follow the Civil War closely, but can it compare to the multicultural and personality-heavy Napoleonic era? Or to all that great Empire stuff? The US also had no president as fat or randy or destructive as old Henry VIII, who is studied so heavily in school here. Of course it is all novel to me, too, since as far as I remember almost no European history is taught to most US school kids. Or maybe I wasn't listening.
Paul replied: Sequences is interesting also. I guess in the US sequences are mystery novels instead