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01 August 2014

Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe's Trafalgar

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A Sharpe adventure on the high seas
I am becoming addicted to Bernard Cornwell's superb action-packed historically detailed fictional series about Richard Sharpe, an English  foot-soldier in India and the Napoleonic wars at the end of the 18th and start of the 19th Century. This time Sharpe takes to the high seas and at the end of a long voyage home from India gets involved in the Battle of Trafalgar, the largest and bloodiest sea battle of the days of sail.

Richard Sharpe was born and raised in poverty and joined the British army and was sent to serve in India. He quickly made his mark as a Sergeant but was promoted from the ranks to become a commissioned officer for an “act of outstanding bravery” when he saved the life of General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington). At that time most officers purchased their commissions and looked down at Sharpe as an interloper with no class, and his men don’t think he is a proper officer.

Sharpe is on his way back to England from India on “Calliope” an East India Company ship. Fellow passengers are Lord William and beautiful but very aloof Lady Grace Hale. Initially there is little contact between Lady Grace and Sharpe but her fascination with Sharpe’s character and persistence (he is a rugged ladies man), Lord William’s addiction to laudanum (an opiate) as a sleeping draft and the tedium a long voyage bring them much closer together.

Part way through the voyage the Calliope is hijacked by a French warship, the "Revanant", off Mauritius and the ship is left under the control of a small prize crew. When English man-of-war, the "Pucelle", finds them Sharpe takes control of the ship by cutting the steering ropes. He is reunited with Captain Joel Chase who became a friend in Bombay when Sharpe saved Chase from a very violent encounter with Indian businessmen who swindled both of them.

In a very clever literary move Cornwell sets the Pucelle  in pursuit of the Revanant ending the chase in Spanish waters at a time when huge opposing fleets from England, and France and Spain, are about to meet in  the Battle of Trafalgar. This is where Cornwell excels - authentically researched historical contexts and adrenaline-pumping action-packed description of battles.  The reader is right in the centre of the naval battle, with the noise and recoil from broadsides of cannon; the destruction of sails, spars and masts; much bloodshed; sword fights and much bravery. Of course Sharpe is in the centre of it all.

While the book is nearly 400 pages it seemed much shorter because of the page-turning action. I have read that Cornwell has been called "The greatest writer of historical adventures today."  I agree and I am already addicted to the Richard Sharpe series and plan to read all 22 of Sharpe’s adventures in order whenever I get a spare moment. As I started with #4 in the series I need to go back first and read Sharpe's adventures in India (Sharpe's Tiger, Triumph, and Fortress).

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