Book Review: Sharpe’s Fortress by Bernard Cornwell

I recently joined a book club/discussion group sort of thing, and their theme for this month is ‘Historical Fiction.’ Cool. Thing is, I’ve already read all the Flashman novels, and I couldn’t find the latest Captain Alatriste at the library, so I had to branch out. Which is what brings us to Sharpe’s Fortress.

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I’ve been … vaguely aware of Cornwell’s Sharpe novels for awhile, and I might even have read one of them some time ago. But that was awhile back, so I figured I’d give the series a go. The library had a couple titles, so I picked out the one they had that was earliest in the series. However, I’ve now learned that Sharpe’s Fortress is actually a prequel, written after the ‘main’ series. Woops.

Anyway, the Sharpe novels center around Richard Sharpe (thankfully, nobody ever calls him “Dick Sharpe”), an English soldier of the Napoleonic era. Over the course of a whole crap-ton of Cornwell’s novels, Sharpe marches around and has various adventures, shooting and stabbing lots of people along the way. The BBC even did a Sharpe miniseries, starring Sean Bean as the titular character.

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Possibly the only thing Sean Bean’s ever been in where he doesn’t die horribly by the end. 

Sharpe’s Fortress is set in India in 1803. In the previous novel, Sharpe had been promoted from a sergeant to an officer as a reward for saving a General’s life. However, given that Sharpe is an enlisted man, and most of the English officers are hoity-toity snobs of varying levels of competence, this doesn’t go over very well for anyone.

Still, there’s a war on, so Sharpe gets to do quite a bit of proper soldiering. An Indian army is rising up against English rule, and after the book’s opening battle, they take up shop in the impregnable fortress of Gawilghur. Cornwell gets a bit repetitive, as there’s at least a half dozen conversations where characters go on about how invincible this fortress is. It’s even got a snake pit! Only, well, it turns out to be fairly ‘vincible’ in the end, as the redcoats wind up taking the place anyway. With Sharpe right in the thick of it, of course.

The biggest thing that hit me about this book was how fast of a read it was. Maybe I was just in the mood for something different, or maybe anything would come off as a quick read after the dense and heavy prose of Frank Herbert. Then again, a rollicking pace is pretty much exactly what you need in an adventure novel.

I couldn’t help but compare Sharpe’s Fortress to another novel set in English occupied India (albeit 50-something years later), Flashman and the Great Game. It’s kind of funny, as Fraser’s Flashman novels parody the very tropes that Cornwell’s Sharpe novels play straight. Which is even funnier when you consider the fact that the Flashman novels were written first. And while I’m sure Cornwell has done his homework, he doesn’t have the historical citations that Fraser does, either.

On top of that, while the Flashman novels are written as satirical comedies … they also do a really, really good job of portraying just how ugly things like war and colonialism can be. In contrast, the Sharpe novels never really get past the point of “here are the good guys, here are the bad guys, now watch Sharpe kill all the bad guys.” To be fair, the biggest antagonists of Sharpe’s Fortress are English, and not Indian, so the book doesn’t veer into racist stereotype territory (unlike, say, certain books about dragons I’ve read).

All and all, Sharpe’s Fortress is a forgettable bit of pulpy fluff. Still, it’s enjoyable enough, and it’s … vaguely educational, I suppose. I mean, Gawilghur is an actual fortress that was actually besieged by the British in 1803, which is something I wasn’t aware of before, so there’s that.

Honestly, though, I have to wonder if anyone’s done “Sharpe in SPAAAAACE” just yet. Might wanna get on that, Baen.

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