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27 August 2014

Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe's Tiger

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Sharpe in the Tigers' Lair
This is the first book in the remarkable series of 22 impeccably researched historical novels by master storyteller Bernard Cornwell about Richard Sharpe, a foot-soldier in India and in the Napoleonic wars at the end of the 18th Century and beginning of the 19th Century. I have already read a couple of books in the series and have made a resolution to read the rest, in order.

This book introduces Richard Sharpe as an impoverished, illiterate private soldier in the 50,000 strong Indian Army led by General George Harris marching to lay siege to and capture Seringapatam in Southern India to overthrow Tippoo Sultan who had defied British rule for many years. Sharpe is the son of a London prostitute (father unknown), orphaned at three and left to grow up first in a foundling home and then on the streets of London. He joins the army for some form of security but mainly to avoid being imprisoned for thievery.

Sharpe is unlucky to be put under the control of cruel and tyrannical Sergeant Hakeswill who is determined to break Sharpe's brave and cocky outlook. Hawewill taunts Sharpe into a fight which results in a flogging for hitting a senior officer. Sharpe's punishment is cut short when a senior officer gives him a choice, continue the flogging and risk death or pose as a deserter, penetrate Tippoo's city and find a Scottish officer being held prisoner there who has vital information about the city's fortifications. The deal is that if Sharpe succeeds he will become a sergeant but if he fails Tippoo will most likely feed him to his man-eating tigers. We see Sharpe showing the kind of wisdom and bravery that shapes his life in his further career in the Army as he helps the attackers from behind enemy lines.

Cornwell seamlessly blends historical reality, characters and battles with Sharpe's adventures to give us a continuing action-packed history lesson that puts us in the box seat both of the battlefront and also a detailed view of life in the armies of the day. In this book Cornwell describes immense task of moving an army of 50,000 troops and thousands of camp followers (including cooks, wives, merchants and even brothels). The army needs 200,000 cattle, some for food, oxen to carry cannon balls and bullocks to haul wagons and guns, the heaviest needing sixty bullocks apiece. Officers slept in tents, well away from the cattle. The common soldiers had no tents and slept on the ground close to campfires. Pay was a pittance and the main motivation of the common soldier in battle was the spoils of war taken from the fallen and captured towns.

I thoroughly enjoyed this first encounter with Richard Sharpe and look forward to fulfilling my resolution to read the rest of this fantastic series, which I heartily recommend to anyone who likes action-packed and adrenaline pulsing historical fiction.

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