by Bernard Cornwell
384 pages, Harper Collins
Review by Pat Black
Front rank, fire!
Sorry, I just couldn’t hold that in. You should see people’s faces when I bellow that on the train.
Sharpe’s Tiger tells the earliest tale of Bernard Cornwell’s most famous creation – granite-jawed British soldier Richard Sharpe, who fights against Bonaparte’s forces in the early 19th century. Having apparently mined most plausible battle scenarios of that campaign for Sharpie’s stories over the years, Cornwell decided to go roll the years back even further for inspiration. This makes Sharpe’s Tiger a prequel; what can I say, this was the nineties – they were all the rage back then.
When we meet Sharpe, he is roughly 23 years old, serving in the Havercakes under General Harris in May 1799 as the British army prepares to storm the city of Seringapatam in India. The British hope to overthrow the Sultan of the city, the Tippoo, with an eye to taking control of southern India and all the lovely trade this will open up for them.
Private Sharpe, a former thief and murderer, is full of the pluck and grit that fans of the series will be well acquainted with. Coming to the books for the first time, I was particularly struck by the soldier’s savagery on the battlefield as he takes part in an early engagement with the Tippoo’s troops. Sharpe puts down one man with a bayonet thrust to the throat. While this opponent is gurgling his last in the desert sands, Sharpe rifles his pockets for plunder. “Where’s your money, then?” he says tetchily, the last words his enemy ever hears.
Despite his exploits on the field, Sharpe is tormented from the very first in this book by his mortal enemy, the twitchy, deranged Sergeant Hakeswill. Hakeswill, with his eyes on Sharpe’s woman and eager to take his rival out of the play, provokes the private into a fight for which he is sentenced to a silly amount of lashes. In the desert, and without antibiotics or antiseptics, such a punishment equals death.
But fate intervenes; Lieutenant Lawford, an officer who spots Sharpe’s potential, saves him from completing his sentence in order to involve him in a plot to infiltrate the enemy stronghold ahead of the siege. Thus, Sharpe enters the tiger’s den, distinguishing himself more than once in a tight spot and earning the respect of a French officer enlisted to help the Tippoo; the honourable Gudin, someone we will meet again in the series.
The period detail is wonderful, from the uniforms to the splendour of the Tippoo’s palaces and the fine grain on the muskets. The young Arthur Wellesley – later to become the Duke of Wellington – and other real-life historical figures also appear, providing flesh for the historical bones of the book.
So from a technical perspective it’s lovely. But what I really liked about Sharpe’s Tiger was the sheer bully beef British derring-do of Cornwell’s hero. All considerations of politics, conquest and exploitation aside, you’re always on Sharpie’s side. He has that Boy’s Own Adventure aura of the forthright hero, a common man using his strength and cunning to bring down his enemies. Maybe it’s something to do with Sean Bean’s portrayal of Sharpe on TV, but Sharpe seems to me to be similar to comic strip heroes Dan Dare or Roy of the Rovers. People to look up to; tough but honest; Britons who get things done. Blond.
Appropriately, then, there are elements of a comic book in the way we are introduced to Sharpe’s foes. Tigers prowl the Tippoo’s palaces, hungry for the flesh of prisoners, and oh yes, you can bet Sharpe is going to have to take on one of those. On top of that, the Tippoo’s formidable bodyguards, hulking WWF-sized brutes who turn Englishmen’s heads completely around for sport, also stalk the cobbles – and yes, you can bet our Richard is going to have to take those boys on, too.
It ends with a somewhat implausible confrontation, but by that point Cornwell has us so firmly in the palm of his hands that it doesn’t matter. And, as the author points out in the afterword, it could well have panned out that way in real-life...
Normally at this point I’d waffle on for another few hundred words about what this book means in terms of geopolitics and neo-crusades in light of current events and all the rest of it. But for once I will allow myself to enjoy Sharpe’s Tiger simply for what it is – a superior historical adventure by a wonderful writer.