16 May 2010

Sharpe's Fortress

Sharpe’s Fortress Imperfect, but A Fine Exit from India
By Kristin Battestella

Once again, I’ve stopped and started on another Sharpe novel from Bernard Cornwell.  Sometimes I frustrate myself if I realize I’ve been reading the same book for over a month when I used to read a book a week.  Is that a statement on the busy lifestyle and replacement of reading as priority in today’s society or the sign of a less than stellar written yarn?  Nevertheless, here I am still reading about young Dickie Sharpe in Sharpe’s Fortress

Colonel William Dodd and his Cobras unit have taken refuge in the far-flung and nearly impenetrable fortress of Gawilghur escaping the battle of Aragaum. Angry and displaced Ensign Richard Sharpe, however, has revenge on his mind.  Raised from the ranks for saving Sir Arthur Wellesley’s life, Sharpe doesn’t fit in with his new regiment and has plans to kill the renegade Dodd.  Unfortunately, vile Sergeant Obadiah Hakeswill and his ruthless Captain Morris also have it in for Sharpe. 

Sharpe's FortressAlthough 1999’s Sharpe’s Fortress is a satisfying conclusion to Bernard Cornwell’s prequel trilogy, this third India novel suffers from the same troubles as its predecessors Sharpe’s Tiger and Sharpe’s Triumph(Why do I feel like I’ve said that before?) The head hopping, weak villainous viewpoints, and absentee battle narration again dominate Fortress.  Personal strides that we make with Wellesley and Sharpe take a backseat to omnipresent explanations about Gawilghur.   I must say it’s also odd that after two titles that begin with a T (and the next book chronologically in the series begins with a T, too) Fortress seems a little on the outs with its odd F.  I don’t really know what else it could have been called, but psychologically again this gives me the feeling that these books might have been better served with a good edit as two books instead of three. 

Yes, the character of William Dodd by nature doesn’t have a lot of character; he’s a louse hoping to rule India via the blood of others. Unfortunately, his thinly veiled villainy and unlike-ability doesn’t help me care about Dodd’ point of view.  This isn’t called Dodd’s Fortress, yet it feels like we’ve spent a long half of the book with him.  We’ve spent most of the trilogy with Dodd’s overreaching presence, and then he exits in less than a page.  Huh?  Not only does Fortress have to conclude itself, but also there has to be some restitution for the trilogy.  Sharpe’s initial reason for pursing Dodd-the massacre at Chasalgaon- is never even mentioned.  Ironically, with all this head-hopping going on, we actually don’t get any thoughts on Dodd’s departure from Dodd.  A splendid conclusion could have forgiven the limpness of the character, but alas, this weak villain is put out to pasture too weakly.

We know and love to hate Obadiah Hakeswill as a far better lecherous and realistic villain, but his treatment is also uneven.  Absent for gaps of pages at a time, we simply don’t spend enough time with the murderous sergeant to care on his plot.  Even when he attacks Sharpe, robs him, sets him up, and leaves him for dead-it’s forgotten until the final pages of Fortress.  After almost three books with a relatively minor role, the big conclusion is supposed to be with him? Similar but different to Dodd, Hakeswill’s fate is also a little too iffy.  We know he survives the deadly snake pit Fortress leaves him in- but a deadly snake pit seems pretty conclusive on, you know, the deadly part. If you didn’t already know Hakewsill’s claims of cheating death or his wicked deeds in 1984’s Sharpe’s Enemy, you’d think his implied survival here too far towards deus ex machina.

Yes, yes, I complain.  Why bother to read the series if the action is ill-paced among lesser and lesser villains? Because I like Richard Sharpe, that’s why, and he’s great here as always.  It’s delightful to see Sharpie as an ensign, since the television series skips this rank for the most part- and understandably so.  It’s an odd rank, isn’t it? Sharpe is an officer in between- no longer in the ranks, but not really any officer of note-much less a respectable gentlemen officer befitting the young and wealthy position of an ensign.  He’s little more than a baggage man and flag boy despite his age and fighting skill.  It’s wonderful to see Sharpe get what he thought he wanted- and then find out how the grass isn’t greener.  There’s anger, conflict, man versus man when he doesn’t fit in, and man versus himself when Sharpe debates what he wants from the army and in life.  This is how you build character, people! 

It’s also lovely to see how Sharpe got his distinctive facial scar.  The allusions of transferring to the new Rifles green jacket division are also a fine touch.  I hope there’s more to this for the follow up Sharpe’s Trafalgar.  These hints at the earlier books and the Sharpe that is to come satisfy the end of Fortress, but I wish we didn’t have to wait literally to the last page for the resolution.  Gawilghar is claimed; Sharpe beats the bads, and walks into the sunlight literally with the back cover to spare.  Charges that might be brought against him for striking a superior officer, the telescope that Wellesley will give him, friends’ burials that Sharpe wishes to uphold-all these distinctive touches are left out.  It makes an uneven read for Sharpe’s Fortress, with an overlong opening, a villainous middle, and a rushed battle ending.  Just because the action is resolved, doesn’t mean the characters are.  In a well-planned trilogy, there should be room enough for both.

Although some of the newer Sharpe novels are better than others are, this India Trilogy as a whole is a fine nod as to how Sharpe became Sharpe.  Readers and super fans of the Napoleonic fiction might be reluctant to continue here, but lovers of old time India tales can enjoy Sharpe’s FortressThese three books have their ups and downs yes, but loyal readers can find what they are looking for in this prequel trio.  New fans can indeed begin their chronological Sharpe adventures here. 

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