“Sharpe’s Escape,” by Bernard Cornwell

11 Sep

“Sharpe’s Escape,” by Bernard Cornwell (444p)
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Bussaco, September 1810

Written in 2004 comes the second-most-recent Sharpe novel, Sharpe’s Escape, which more or less leaves off from where Sharpe’s Gold ends as it takes place shortly after. This is the tenth novel (chronologically) in the Sharpe series and depicts the stunning Battle of Busaco of 1810.

A month after Sharpe’s Gold the British army is encamped in Central Portugal, between Porto and Coimbra and has perched itself on a ridge near the small town of Busscao. Meanwhile, Cap. Richard Sharpe, his captaincy still not officially confirmed by Horse Guards, is out patrolling with the South Essex light company. With him is a new lieutenant, the wonderfully irritating Lt. Cornelius Slingsby whose enthusiasm and zeal annoys Sharpe to no end. In the early stages of the novel Sharpe encounters some Portuguese and a supply of flour at one of the disused telegraph towers. These Portuguese are attempting to sell it to the French, but Sharpe is forced to destroy it under Wellington’s orders that no food be left for the French.

The leader of the Portuguese, a man named Ferragus, fights Sharpe over the flour. They are soon interrupted by the arrival of Maj. Pedro Ferreira, who happens to be Ferragus’ brother, as well as a member of army intelligence. Before the Battle of Bussaco the Ferreira brothers attempt to get revenge on Sharpe by beating him to death, but Sharpe manages to get away as the battle looms.

Battered and bruised, Sharpe’s ally Lt. Col. The Hon. William Lawford seizes the opportunity to advance his relative, Lt. Slingsby, and so relieves Sharpe of his commanding duty during the battle. We then get a different perspective of the usual Cornwell battle scene, as Sharpe is not directly in the battle. He sits on the sidelines and watches from a horse, spending most of the time deriding Slingsby. This change, however, does not take away from the quality of the writing in the battle scene but it is a unique perspective across the Sharpe novels. Cap. Jorge Vicente, from Sharpe’s Havoc, also makes a return during the battle.

Britain and Portugal win the battle, itself quite remarkable as the French actually took the ridge for awhile. It is after the battle – which concludes before the 200pg mark – where the true story of Sharpe’s Escape takes hold in the city of Coimbra. There, the British are destroying the remaining supplies before they retreat back to Lisbon. Also waiting in Coimbra are the Ferreira brothers with their plans to get rich off the French by selling a massive haul of food, but to also take revenge on Richard Sharpe.

Tipped off by one of Ferragus’ men, Sharpe is lulled into a trap at the warehouse. Harper and Vicente are with him, as is Miss Sarah Fry, who was the governess at the Ferreira household. Ferragus conspires to trap Sharpe and kill him, but Sharpe finds a way to escape from his latest near death predicament. He then leads Harper, Vicente, Sarah Fry and a young Portuguese girl named Joana across the Portuguese countryside in chase of the Ferreira brothers, which comes to a stop in a farm house outside the Lines of Torres Vedras. Hemmed inside the farm house is the light company of the South Essex, and Sharpe finally defeats Ferragus there but also leads yet another daring escape out of the farm house and behind the safety of the bastions and forts.

I really warmed to Sharpe’s Escape the further I read. At the start, I was wary as it seemed a tad same-same, but Cornwell really throws up some surprises. For one thing, Sharpe’s relationship with Lawford is really put under the microscope as Lawford represents the bane of Sharpe’s life, army bureaucracy. They argue several times throughout and that is a refreshing change from the amiable niceness. Sharpe is an affront to men of authority in the army and his behaviour throughout the novel really puts a strain to his friendship with Lawford, who is, let us not forget, also Sharpe’s commanding officer as colonel of the South Essex.

This is quite a hidden gem in the Sharpe series. The action is typically top notch but the story itself harks back to the Indian prequels, and I really enjoyed it. A second thing that comes to the fore in Sharpe’s Escape is the development of the Sharpe and Harper friendship, something I think everyone can relate to. However where this novel really succeeds is its telling of Sharpe’s various escapes from his various troubles, and Cornwell does a brilliant job of making you think this really might be it such are the hopelessness of his trials and tribulations.



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