20 March 2013

Sharpe's Prey

Sharpe’s Prey Mostly an Entertaining Little Escapade
By Kristin Battestella

Bernard Cornwell filled in another gap of his Sharpe series’ chronology with the 2001 novel Sharpe’s Prey, and this time the titular raised from the ranks Lieutenant find himself on a secret mission in Denmark for more international intrigue between England and France in 1807.

Lieutenant Sharpe is stuck in England unhappy with the army and mourning the loss of his lover in childbirth when General Baird sends him on a mission to Denmark with enough gold to win the Danes’ alliance against France and ensure their impressive fleet remains out of Napoleon’s hands.  Sharpe, however, makes it his personal mission to pursue John Lavisser, a double agent looking to sell England’s spies to France.

First and foremost, we spend a solid amount of Sharpe’s Prey with the man himself. In these newer Sharpe novels, my main complain has consistently been the lack of Sharpe – his point of view journey as a man alone is often found on the short end of the dangerous battle or sociological stick. In Prey, however, there is a pleasant London background to begin the tale. Sharpe is brooding and angry and has returned to his haunts in England, and it’s great to see his reflections on past, present, and future. Later on, we’re treated to some exclusive time with Sharpe as a man alone captured, escaped, and in pursuit in circumstances as tiny as a chimney or as huge as the Battle of Koge.  Unfortunately, the relationship with the widowed Astrid is a bit obvious. Is there a novel where Sharpe doesn’t get the girl? We know it’s going to happen and sometimes the romance feels awkward or forced. We know Sharpe will get over the deceased Grace from the previous year’s Sharpe’s Trafalgar. The longtime reader also knows Sharpe is not going to runoff and play house in Copenhagen and that another chick will be along soon enough for the next novel in the timeline, Cornwell’s first prequel, 1988’s Sharpe’s Rifles.  Thankfully, there isn’t that much of the romance, and Sharpe’s silent mourning of Grace is well done, along with the friendly appearances of Captain Chase and his ship the Pucelle carrying over from Trafalgar. All these military troubles and it’s the thoughts on love lost that almost bring our deadly, often murderous hero to the breaking point. These inner monologues and one-man adventure concepts are Sharpe at its best.

We get a solid Sharpe – that’s who we’re here for, after all – so it almost doesn’t matter that the often absentee villain Lavisser is a limp fish in character and on the page. We don’t even find out his secret aspiration is to be King of Denmark until the final chapters of the book! Beyond clichés, where is his motivation and anger the rest of the time? In some of the recent Sharpe novels when there is both a barely there Sharpe and a cheap villain, it’s been some stinky tough reading. When the books have been both heavy with Sharpe dilemmas and had stunning, reappearing villains like Hakeswill or Major Ducos, however, it’s been some damn dynamite reading. Of course, overlong scenes without Sharpe have been the bane of the newer Sharpe novels.  Once again, we have numerous scenes with English and Danish generals leading abstract battle plans and soldier conversation. Little did he know, he would be disemboweled by the next  bomb – stuff like that. I confess, I tend to skim over these pages; they feel too long, unimportant, and they just don’t seem that interesting.  Does the reader care about the battle any more or less if we know the strategy from either side? Some of the ho hum minions of the villains do not warrant a point of view at all, much less a few pages per chapter of several nobodies. Like the pomp assy Lavisser, it’s no fun reading these jerky folks, and it shows in the writing. At least Lavisser as a diabolical Dane supporting France is plot point.  We need someone for Sharpe to pursue, don’t we?

Although it was a smart move to place the plot and action of Sharpe’s Prey in the new to Sharpe and relatively unexplored Danish angle of the Napoleonic wars, the change of pace might be off pointing to some.  It’s nice to meet Copenhagen, yes, but some longtime readers will find the location switch too much of a change, and it’s tough to do an un-heroic bombardment and be sympathetic on all sides. Not helping that difficult balance, Sharpe’s Prey ends, well, a little bit hokey. After a detailed build up, we’re left with the final few pages quickly wrapping up the Copenhagen destruction with rushed day after montages. Critical plot points hinging on daring orphanage rescues, cliché commanders, and hellish church deaths are almost laughable in a series so often grim and embittered like its eponymous character. This novel is better than some of the newer prequel placements in the series, but not quite on par with the original Sharpe books. Yes, Prey is a prequel after the fact, but Sharpe being without his woman, without his country, and away from his army leads nicely to his finding his place with the rifleman in the forthcoming Sharpe’s Rifles. So long as it sticks with Sharpe’s observations and his on the prowl, Prey remains entertaining reading.  

Where some of the new additions in the series faltered by straying too far from Sharpe, Prey is a good fit into the canon. It can be read out of turn thanks to its Danish set up, or in chronological order as Cornwell brings some of the previous India prequels and naval action back into a new area of Europe. Fans of the film series looking for new adventures can enjoy Sharpe’s Prey, and those who put down the newer, wayward, set elsewhere prequels can return to Sharpe here.

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