Can you believe it has been over 7 years since I read my last Sharpe novel? 7 years! I’ve published 4 more books since then!! During that time, I’ve read several of Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series (excellent) and the first three of his Grail Quest (very good) but some time spent with everyone’s favourite lovable rogue was long overdue.
The year is 1805, and the Calliope, with Richard Sharpe aboard, is captured by a formidable French warship, the Revenant, which has been terrorizing British nautical traffic in the Indian Ocean. The French warship races toward the safety of its own fleet, carrying a stolen treaty that could provoke India into a new war against the British -- and render for naught all that Sharpe has bravely fought for till now. But help comes from an unexpected quarter. An old friend, a captain in the Royal Navy, is on the trail of the Revenant, and Sharpe comes aboard a 74-gun man-of-war called Pucelle in hot pursuit. What results is a breathtaking retelling of one of the most ferocious and one-sided sea battles in European history, in which Nelson -- and Sharpe -- vanquish the combined naval might of France and Spain at Trafalgar.
Opening Sentence: “A hundred and fifteen rupees,” Ensign Richard Sharpe said, counting the money onto the table.
Days to read: 23
If there was one criticism I could level at the Sharpe novels it would be that the books are a little similar regarding the plot and the villains. The plot usually involves Sharpe performing some extraordinary exploits whilst the villains are cartoonish in their petty and malicious behaviour. Neither of these points bother me too much though as you go into the novel knowing exactly what you are getting and sometimes you just want your bad guys to be bad. Not every character has to have “grey areas” or be identifiable on some level. Life is not like that and I like my novels to not be like that as well.
Sharpe’s Trafalgar as the title suggests, places Sharpe in a completely new environment, onboard a ship in the middle of the ocean. Sharpe is firmly a soldier and so it is nice to see him out of his comfort zone. It adds a new dimension to his character and limits his skills drastically.
I mentioned the above formula being prevalent in the preceding novels, but in Sharpe’s Trafalgar the formula is well and truly ripped up. Sharpe is more of a bystander in this novel and his actions are defined only by the superior officers and captains around him. He does influence events but not to a significant degree.
Instead, Sharpe’s Trafalgar is more of a love story as Sharpe becomes fixated on lady Grace Hale. Grace is of course out of Sharpe’s class and therefore out of his league. Sharpe is content to admire her from afar for this very reason but inevitably, we soon learn that his lust is not as unrequited as she thinks.
At first Grace seems a one-dimensional character. She is trapped by her marriage and longing to be rescued by an exciting, scoundrel. There was a danger that she would not develop beyond this and just become another damsel, fawning over the irresistible Sharpe. Cornwall avoids this trap by slowly unveiling a tragic backstory. It is not the most in depth past you will ever read, but at least it gives Grace a little more substance.
As for the villains, they are much more of a variety. Yes, there is the snide, jealous Braithwaite but the main villains are a trickster we have met in previous novels and Grace’s husband who is far savvier then we are led to believe.
As I mentioned above, Sharpe does not have much influence over the events that unfold. Instead, this novel is more of an account of what it was like to be onboard a ship at sea. Details of the tedious lifestyle are superbly told as is the very real dangers of lack of supplies. Sharpe does demonstrate his dark side in this novel which proves he is less than perfect and is an interesting development in his character.
The real crux of the story is the battle of Trafalgar itself. Cornwall has always been accurate and has always had a knack of recounting battles. I got the impression the whole reason for this novel was for Cornwall to have the opportunity to retell this historic battle with Nelson’s novel strategy. That is fine by me as Cornwall once again does a superb job. I confess I only vaguely knew the detail of the battle prior to reading this novel, but reading about the atrocities first hand and then sacrifices made by the British to implement their plan are both mind blowing and fascinating.
Overall if you are expecting a traditional Sharpe novel you may be a little disappointed. After 7 years, I went in expecting one thing but was pleasantly surprised with what I got. Sharpe is still Sharpe, a character you just can’t help but love. Put him in space and I would still read the story.
My rating: 8.6