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25 March 2015

Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe's Rifles

Sharpe faces up to his gremlins
Bernard Cornwell's long running series about Richard Sharpe, a foot-soldier in India and in the Napoleonic Wars is one of the best historical series around. Sharpe's Rifles is set at the time of the brutal French Invasion of Galicia in Spain in January 1809.

While Richard Sharpe joined the Army to avoid prison he quickly found that he loved a life of a soldier, especially the adrenaline pumping excitement of battle. He has proved himself in battle and gained a stunning battlefield promotion to become an officer. This is not a comfortable situation as other officers look down on him because he is not their class and his troops who won't look up to him because he is not seen to be a proper officer.

Sharpe has moved on to join the  95th Rifles who are posted to Spain. His Company Commander is killed in a skirmish with the French and Sharpe is left in command to get his Company to safety through French lines. This would be hard enough with the respect of his riflemen which is not forthcoming, especially from the dominating and difficult Irishman Harper who the troops look up to instead of Sharpe. The battle of wills between two strong personalities is enthralling and compelling.

Sharpe's Company meet up with Spanish cavalry commanded by aristocrat Major Vivar who means to raise the flag of Spain's patron saint over Santiago de Compostela, now in French hands. Sharpe is faced with a dilemma, to help Viva or to go it alone in dangerous country.

Once again this is a history lesson about the art of war in the early 19th Century which is bloody and brutal. It is also the story of a brave and clever man of common background who has to face up to his gremlins to get the respect of his men.

I found some of the background, especially Sharpe's relationship with women from a genteel background, is a little confusing because the book was written before SHARPE'S TRAFALGAR (which comes before Rifles in the timeline) where Sharpe has a torrid and very emotional relationship with Lady Grace Hale.

Once again this is a great page-turning story which puts you in a front row seat on the battleground and builds up Sharpe's character as he faces up to his gremlins and shows that he is one of the smartest soldiers of his generation. I still have lots of Sharpe's adventures to share and I look forward to reading them from time to time as exciting relief from more contemporary novels.

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