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Reading another Sharpe novel is like stepping into a pair of your favourite slippers; comfy as anything, but they can stink to high heaven! I have over the years read more than 40 books by Bernard Cornwell, this includes many Sharpe novels, and there has to be a reason that I go back for more. The books are violent, misogynistic and clunky at times, but they are also fun, heroic and well structured. Now that Sean Bean is a little too old and a little too expensive for ITV Sharpe's TV appearances will be increasingly rare. If you are someone that misses the show, why not try the books? Some of them are fantastic, others so-so. Which of these two camps will 'Sharpe's Siege' come under?
Sharpe and Harper return as part of an army preparing to move forwards into France. For years they have fought in Portugal and then Spain, but now they are on the doorstep of Napoleon's homestead. Wellington is all too aware that the French will be ready for an invasion from the South so he sends Sharpe and his Rifles with some Naval Marines to take a vital toehold on the French coast. With the allies having naval supremacy over the French it is only the troublesome Americans who can upset the plan. However, as usual with Sharpe it is not only the outside threat that he has to worry about as a buffoonish Captain may lead his marines into a trap. When Sharpe is stranded in France with his rifles he must survive a siege that will test his skills like never before - is this the end for him and Harper?
'Sharpe's Siege' is classic Sharpe in every way and one of the best in the series. Cornwell himself states at the start of the book that this is perhaps his favourite and it's clear to see why. Unlike some of the books in the series 'Siege' has a solid structure that means it stands on its own as a novel. There is a precise beginning, middle and end that means you can read it without knowing about Sharpe at all. Where the book succeeds most is in the battle scenes. The siege that takes place on the Fort is fantastic. You see it being initially overtaken by the Brits and then the French attempts to recapture it.
Cornwell portrays a vivid image of the Napoleonic War and 'Siege' is amongst his best work. He finds poetry in violence that other authors try to mimic, but fail. There is nothing quite like a battle scene as written by Cornwell. He is methodical in following historic accuracy in battle, but he intersperses this dryness with startling imagery of a solider losing an arm, or an officer falling to a bullet. It is almost as if you are on the ground and you are looking left to right, picking up small snippets of the battle, not sure what is occurring in the chaos. This is why Sharpe is such an important character for the books. Battle hardened, he has an inbuilt sense of the way the battle is turning and he informs the reader what is actually happening on the wider scale. The juxtaposition of individual triumphs and tragedies alongside the eagle eyed view of hindsight makes the Sharpe books so good.
There are certainly flaws in 'Sharpe's Siege'. Firstly, it is totally made up! Normally this is a given in fiction, but Cornwell usually inserts Sharpe into a real battle. The battle for the fort never occurred, so some of the historic accuracy is lost. On a positive note this means that Sharpe does not feel as shoehorned into the fight as in some books. This cannot be said of Harper who turns up even though he has no right to be there. Finally, like in all the books the bromance between Sharpe and Harper is nice to read, but a little cheesy.
In my view 'Sharpe's Siege' is up there with the best that the Sharpe series has to offer. The numerous battles are fantastic with an interesting comparison on Siege warfare; once as the aggressor, the other as the defender. With some of the best fighting in the series Cornwell is still able to pepper the text with his usual strong style. With reduced influence from the wider arch of Sharpe and his women I actually felt that the book benefitted as it acts almost as a standalone novel. I would still urge anyone new to the books to read them in chronological order (very different from the written order) as this gives you a batter insight into the characters. However, if you are looking just to grab a Sharpe novel off the shelf you could do a lot worse than starting with 'Sharpe's Siege'.
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Price: amazon uk - £4.89
play.com - £4.99