05 January 2010

Sharpe's Triumph

Uneven Tale, but Fine Heroes in Sharpe’s Triumph
By Kristin Battestella

Amid the bustle of edits and the holiday season, I took a break from the second novel of Bernard Cornwell’s India Trilogy, 1998’s Sharpe’s Triumph. But of course, the early adventures of Sergeant Sharpe at the Battle of Assaye had me returning for all the exotic, heroic action soon enough.

After surviving rogue officer William Dodd’s massacre at Chasalgaon, Sergeant Richard Sharpe and Colonel McCandless seek to capture Dodd at Ahmednuggur. Unfortunately, Sharpe rescues Simone Jubert-a Frenchwoman whose husband is also serving with Dodd under Colonel Pohlmann and the Scindia of Gwalior- instead. Sharpe then finds himself serving as General Wellesley’s horseman during the Battle of Assaye. It’s a position that might fulfill Sharpe’s dreams of becoming an officer, unless the vengeful Hakeswill catches up to him first.

Sharpe's Triumph: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Assaye, September 1803 (Richard Sharpe's Adventure Series #2)The best part about reading Sharpe is of course, Sharpe. Seeing Dickie Sharpe as a Sergeant in the heat and floundering confusion of India is another step towards the Napoleonic hero we know and love. Brutish Richard is also a little like our later darling Sergeant Harper. He’s often referred to as big and wild and like a fighting madman when he gets his battle on. It’s seems Cornwell’s Sergeants are all either big wild men or seedy slime balls. It’s good, but too similar sometimes. Colonel McCandless is charming as the retiring Scotsman who takes Sharpe under his wing, but his exit from the trilogy here should have been handled better. It’s almost an after thought, in fact. I was expecting more departing emotion from young Sharpe’s first father figure styled commander. Thankfully, General Wellesley is more than just his typical historically researched obvious. Sharpe may seem a little lost and aimless while in the General’s personal service, but instead of writing from the history books about Wellesley, Cornwell expands the General’s ticks and command style into personality. Like Sharpe, we see Wellesley as an individual on the brink of something grand. The human elements and personal touches in Sharpe are what makes the series so good. The lacking of the 100% personal is why the recent novels in the series are somewhat lackluster.

Unfortunately, the villains of Sharpe’s Triumph are a little sub par. Cornwell makes strides for Dodd to be a real creep, but he’s more annoying than anything else. He’s a lot of talk about all his bads, but we don’t see very much of them-outside of his always having an exit plan at the expense of others. I can see why Toby Stephens’ composite Dodd was such a limp fish in the Sharpe’s Challenge film-there isn’t much to the character. Obadiah Hakeswill is also meh here. We don’t get enough of his perspective or storyline to really care that he is chasing Sharpe with a warrant and revenge on his filthy mind. Without solid villains or enough ladies, there isn’t much for Sharpe to get down and personal about. It’s as if we’re obligated to have Hakeswill and a pretty bedmate even if they don’t really fit.

Sharpe’s Triumph suffers from many of the same pitfalls as its predecessor, Sharpe’s Tiger. We spend most of the book meandering and following Sharpe from one city to the next, with the critical Battle of Assaye not coming until the last fifty pages. Of course, we spent only one critical part of the battle with Sharpie- the rest of the siege is told by everybody and their grandmother who has appeared in the book. Every British officer named and soldiers unnamed, all the enemy officers, and I dare say you even feel near the thoughts of Wellesley’s horse Diomed. Having a bunch of aides watch the battle and get a sentence a piece head hop on their thoughts is a tough way to tell the action. At times, I must confess, this is what made me put the book down. Every time the scene opened away from Sharpe, I found myself flicking through the pages to see how many pages and viewpoints it would be until our titular hero returned.

I’m sure Cornwell visits his locales and does extensive research into his period, which is fine when it’s used as description and layering of the details. Sometimes, however, it’s a bit too much when we become fully aware that we’re not reading anyone’s point of view, merely a very omnipresent narrator from the 20th century who knows how everything will end. When the splendor or tribulations of India pertains to character, when the action is immediate, dangerous, threatening-these personal pieces weaved with the history and flavor are a delight. I don’t know if Cornwell has the freedom now to work without an editor, but someone should read his manuscript first and tell him to quit with the outside run on sentences and keep the immediate flavor from his characters.

I complain, yes, but I am already moving on to the third and final part of this India prequel trilogy, Sharpe’s Fortress. Triumph suffers from the middle child syndrome, as it’s fairly thin on plot and has to leave enough things unresolved for the next part. I can definitely see the pieces here adapted for the film Sharpe’s Challenge, and I’m curious to see the allusions of Fortress in the film after my next read.

Fans of the Sharpe novels will no doubt read and love, as we are able to take the weaker elements with Our Man Richard. Readers of Indian delights can enjoy Sharpe’s Triumph as well. You need not read Tiger to appreciate this one, but you can’t not move on to Fortress after Triumph.

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