Book Review: “Sharpe’s Eagle” by Bernard Cornwell (1981)

If you love historical fiction with a grungy, violent bent, then Bernard Cornwell is for you! I was first introduced to Cornwell through his Saxon Series depicting the conquests of the Vikings across the English Isles. As thoroughly fascinating as they were, I had gotten so caught up in my schooling that my ability to remain an active reader sort of petered off, sadly. Not wanting to make the same mistake, I chose to delve into another of Cornwell’s series, perhaps his most famous and certainly his most prolific, the Sharpe books.

At the time that I had chosen Sharpe’s Eagle as my first read, I was fully unaware of the timeline either of Cornwell’s publications or of Sharpe’s experiences. Cornwell has published these accounts out of chronological order, so for those of us coming late to the scene, we really can approach the saga either way. To continue, I’d likely prefer to watch Sharpe progress as a character, and therefore read them following his timeline rather than Cornwell’s. It turns out that Eagle was Cornwell’s first or second publication, but Sharpe’s 8th novel experience, so I’ll have to backtrack a bit moving forward.

These books cover the time period which interests me most, the early 19th century and all bloodshed that enslaved nearly every corner of the globe. Having a man like Sharpe to guide his readers through the smoky grounds of history is a blessing, for he’s a strong man albeit worldly, clearly a leader who’s risen through the ranks by merit not pedigree. In fact, Cornwell states once that for some, “money and influence could buy promotion while others, like Sharpe, rotted in penury.” (Kindle Loc. 634) Regarding his leadership style, Sharpe “asked three things of his men. That they fought, as he did, with a ruthless professionalism. That they stole only from the enemy and the dead unless they were starving. And that they never got drunk without his permission.” (Loc 226)

This tale follows Sharpe and his men as they battle Napoleon’s French, similar I’m sure to others in the series, but with this particular bent: Captain Sharpe wants to steal the enemy’s flag, their Eagle, at the Battle of Talavera. According to Sharpe, “to lose the colours was the ultimate disgrace” (Loc. 969) and “to take an Eagle was to make Bonaparte wince in person.” (Loc. 1545) Such a plot midst the details and dirt of the surrounding war is simple and wouldn’t make up more than a few pages from a novelist like James Michener or James Clavell, yet Cornwell’s writing is far from that of a simpleton! It’s intense and violent, peppered with a soldier’s colorful vocabulary and nothing for a juvenile’s eyes. To read the series as a whole, I’m sure, is to enjoy an epic unmatched by most modern authors.

I felt as if I had taken up residence in one of the battlefield tents as I read this book, and I look forward to enjoying many more from the series. For a quick and fictional taste of history, Cornwell is likely your man.

©2016 E.T.

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