21 January 2009

Sharpe's Tiger

Sharpe’s Tiger A Pleasant Return to India
By Kristin Battestella

Sharpe's Tiger [SHARPES TIGER] [Mass Market Paperback] After reading the less than stellar Sharpe’s Fury, I returned to the Sharpe novel series by Bernard Cornwell at its chronological beginning. 1997’s Sharpe’s Tiger is a pleasant return to Indian locales and colonial drama.

Long before his rise to fame against Napoleon, Sharpe was an ignorant Private serving under then Colonel Wellesley during the invasion of Mysore. It’s 1799, and Private Sharpe suffers cruelly at the hands of the wicked Sergeant Hakeswill and the corrupt Captain Morris. After being tricked and provoked by Hakeswill, Sharpe is flogged. General Harris intervenes, sending the despondent Sharpe and Lieutenant Lawford undercover in Seringapatam Sharpe must infiltrate the Tippoo’s forces, rescue lost intelligence Colonel McCandless, battle man eating tigers, and learn how to read.

A lot happens in Sharpe’s Tiger. Some of it can feel like a retread from Cornwell’s earlier novels, mostly in recreating the animosity and vile character of Obadiah Hakeswill, but the touch of India forgives any redundancy from the author. It’s been some time since I’ve read books like Kim and Gunga Din, so it’s been a pleasant change of pace to read of the red coated, lowly Sharpe getting dusty and thinking desertion in the heat of India. And fortunately, we have plenty of Sharpe, unlike some of the other recent books in the series. The beginning of the novel is almost exclusively from his perspective, so we have plenty of time to get to know and love young Sharpie. Towards the end of the book, however, we again get head hopping from Cornwell, but I can forgive the detached thoughts of the Tippoo because we’ve got our fair share of Dick Sharpe.

As much as I like Sharpe and his issues and relationships, it is refreshing to read Sharpe as a man alone. He warms to Lieutenant Lawford eventually, but this uppity officer and ignorant Private don’t bond like Sharpe and Harper later do. I miss Harper, but I like seeing Sharpe so stripped of all that we love about him later. I dare say, he isn’t even as charming. He’s raw and talented, but Sharpe’s got a lot to learn about how to be a soldier. Although Richard is the best thing in town for the Widowed Mary Bickerstaff, I’m kind of glad we don’t have too much romance or bedroom action in Sharpe’s Tiger. We’re just getting to know young Sharpe; he’s learning about himself. For folks beginning their reading here, you’re just meeting Sharpe all together. Cornwell uses the relationship with Mary to show the budding sensitivity in Sharp, but we also get allusions to some brothels, too. We can’t have our hero completely loveless! As often as Cornwell can lay on the history a bit thick, Sharpe himself represents a good hunk of the history from the time. The Tippoo’s Tiger elite versus sepoys siding with the British, the French putting their hands in the pot-Sharpe himself is conflicted between his mission for the army that flogged him and the French Colonel Gudin who treats him with respect unaware that Sharpe is really spying on the Tippoo.

Naturally, when reading Sharpe’s Tiger you can see its influence on the 2006 telefilm Sharpe’s Challenge. The plots to blow the western wall, Sharpe’s undercover work, and his captivity all end up part and parcel in Challenge. When reading the book, I felt familiar with it already from Challenge, even though the film is supposedly a composite of the entire India trilogy: Tiger, Triumph, and Fortress. Some parts of Tiger are very different, though, with more developed secondary characters and tighter battle sequences. And of course, there’s plenty of tigers on the page. Challenge made a few iffy changes by updating the storyline to post Waterloo, but I’m curious now to see how it took from Triumph and Fortress. Of course, just my luck that I don’t currently have the middle book in the trilogy!

I broke from reading Tiger over Christmas, but was eager to return. Despite my praise, however, I must admit the novel is not as stellar as the original Sharpe books. Cornwell lapses into some lazy writing again. Instead of describing things subtly or from one point of view, we get one or two omnipresent sentences with way too many thats and prepositional phrases. This is attached to that, from which there is this, that goes to this, of which there was that man. I get it. Sometimes I think Cornwell tries too hard, or over researches and feels the need to tell every detail ever. If you set up the palace, I can imagine what Seringapatam is like. I don’t need paragraphs of characters waiting and looking around describing things. Get on with the good stuff.

Sharpe’s Tiger is by no means a perfect book, but where prequels can be hit or miss, Cornwell has succeeded here. Although he tries too hard, treads too stereotypically on the Hindu versus Muslim aspects, and historically stretches the end down to Sharpe versus the Tippoo, all in all Tiger is a pleasant read. Whether you enjoy books dealing with colonial or Imperial India, or you’re a bit tired of Sharpe’s Napoleonic antics, Sharpe’s Tiger is a fine place to join in the Sharpe series.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your terrific review of Sharpe's Tiger. I'd read it just after seeing Sharpe's Challenge so I came at it from a post viewing aspect. And only a couple of days ago did I finish Sharpe's Triumph after reading Sharpe's Rifles and continuing on through the rest of the entire series. I was so anxious to see Richard get his Chosen Men that I passed on the other two in the India trilogy and now I am back playing catch-up. That will teach me to be impatient.
I enjoyed Sharpe's Tiger immensely and like you, thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the young Richard Sharpe. I thought it was very touching to see his romantic leanings take root with Mary, and loved how he learned to read with Lawford. Hakeswill is always despicable and makes for the best villain no matter who Sharpe is up against. And I really enjoyed Gudin as a semi-villain, someone who fights on the other side but has his own moral code.
You will enjoy Sharpe's Triumph and this is where Major Dodd makes his appearance with Chasalgon that was so much a part of the Sharpe's Challenge film. You will learn a lot about the Battle of Assaye which although it was an extremely important military victory for Wellington, it still makes you want to rush through and find more about how Sharpe is learning to do things in this gentleman's army.
Thanks again for another superb review, Kristin.
Traci (farrell)

Kristin Snouffer said...

Hi Traci! Glad you stopped by!

I figured the Dodd and East India bits were from the next book. I jump all over the series, too. I just started Battle myself. Even though they had to fudge things to update Challenge, I'm glad they didn't do a whole young reboot like what in today.

If you get the chance, search the Sharpe label for more books and movies.