“Sharpe’s Eagle,” by Bernard Cornwell

10 Sep

“Sharpe’s Eagle,” by Bernard Cornwell (304p)
Richard Sharpe and the Talavera Campaign, July 1809

The beginning of a great adventure! Sharpe’s Eagle is the first novel my favourite author ever wrote, back in 1981. In his own words he claims to have never re-read it and only remembers that it focuses on the Battle of Talavera in the summer of 1809. Cornwell originally wrote this after he had emigrated to the United States but was unable to work because the government turned down his green card application, so he decided to write a book, a Hornblower of the infantry. This is it – the debut novel of Bernard Cornwell.

Sharpe’s Eagle begins with the arrival of a new regiment to the war, the freshly formed (fictitious) South Essex Regiment of Foot. They are led by the annoyingly brilliant and ebullient Col. Sir Henry Simmerson. Flogged into rigid discipline, the South Essex is a miserable unit who despise their commander. They also have one big problem – they have no real idea to fight. This is where Lt. Richard Sharpe comes in and he has instructed to turn the South Essex into a fighting force worth talking about.

By now, Sharpe’s improper and ungentlemanly behaviour has quickly turned Col. Simmerson into an enemy. Simmerson’s dislike of Sharpe and his ways, as well as his own utter incompetence, sees the colonel commit the ultimate military disgrace at the first engagement with the French in the novel – Simmerson’s inability to make the right decision costs the South Essex its colours. The Kings colours no less!

Simmerson attempts to blame Sharpe for his humiliation but the presence of Maj. Michael Hogan and his truthfulness allows Lord Wellington to find out what really happened. Simmerson is disgraced, and Sharpe is gazetted to a captaincy. But Sharpe knows he cannot keep his captaincy as Simmerson has friends in high places at Horse Guards, and so Sharpe must commit an act of extraordinary if not suicidal bravery at the Battle of Talavera – capturing an eagle touched by Napoleon’s own hand.

Sharpe’s Eagle is a simple story. It tells us what we can expect in future editions – most of the time Sharpe is with the army, and his enemies will come from that same army. It also properly introduces readers to Cornwell’s style of fast pace, high intensity action that never stops for a second. But the plot of the novel is believable and immensely enjoyable, as are the characters. Putting it into context Cornwell does a great job of introducing Sharpe and Harper as well as his take on Wellington.

This is a wonderful novel and a top notch debut. It’s raw and not without its faults – the romance with Josefina is a little out of place – but it is also his first novel. However, one thing has stayed the same. Cornwell’s ability to write a multi-chapter battle scene is as good now as it was in 1981. I highly recommend this book.

9/10.

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