Thursday, 11 December 2008

Book review: "Sharpe's Gold", by Bernard Cornwell.

By now I would guess that most people are well aware of Bernard Cornwell's most famous hero, Richard Sharpe, a soldier in the British Army during the turbulent times around the Napoleonic wars. Sharpe's Gold, set in 1810, sees Captain Richard Sharpe, already a war hero, sent behind enemy lines by Wellington to capture a hoard of Spanish gold. On the way, he makes the enemy of a Spanish partisan, El Catolico, who desires the gold for himself.

Sharpe's Gold is quite an old book now - it was first written in 1981 - but has stood the time well. It is the second book in the series written, although prequels written later mean that it is the ninth in the series. A two-hour film of the book was made by ITV, called Sharpe's Gold, but the plot had little to do with the book.

The love interest in the book is El Catolico's betrothed, a Spanish guerilla called Teresa, who hates the French with a passion. She is feisty, strong and determined, and undeniably a beauty, as are all the women that Sharpe seems to meet. However, despite her strength, she falls at his feet and they become hot, sweaty lovers.

This is a problem that I find in many such adventure books - there must be a love interest, even if it is in the middle of a battle, dammit! I understand the need for this, and the appeal of it, but it does seem somewhat unrealistic. However, it is relatively well-handled in this book, with Teresa being a device that takes the plot forwards. It would be nice if a woman could be used in such a book without being a love interest, though. As a writer myself, I know how difficult this is to pull off.

It is a fairly breathless book, and, like all the Sharpe series, is fast-paced and action-filled, forcing you to turn the pages as if at bayonet-point. The moment you feel like you may want to put it down to get some sleep, Cornwell throws another fight or battle into the mix. It is an effective way of turning a book into a page-turner, and is handled well; it is in no way obtrusive.

The plot is fairly simple, with few if any significant twists. The bad guys are fairly obvious early on, and there are few surprises. Having said that, the pacing means that it hardly needs any twists.

As usual Bernard Cornwell has gone into some historic depth with the book, and recent editions have a 'Historical Note' at the end - a nice touch. The British Army may not have been like this in 1810, but if not, then the differences would only be details.

His style is to keep descriptions down to a minimum, and embed them firmly within the action. This works quite well, and the page-long descriptions beloved by some authors are absent. They may work well in certain genres of books, but would intrude unnecessarily on this.

Below is an example. As can be seen, even when Cornwell is describing something, it sounds hurried and urgent:
He felt the excitement inside, the imminence of danger, but still there was no sound, no movement, and he peered up at the church roof's edge, innocent in the moonlight. There was a small door in the wall, barred and locked, and beside it the masonry was rough and crudely repaired.
On the downside, I found the central character of Sharpe hard to like in this book. To a certain extent he seems one-dimensional, determined to get the gold as ordered whatever the consequences. I think that Bernard Cornwell's characterisation of Sharpe is better in the later books. It may also be that I am too used to the Sean Bean character in the TV adaptations.

I would score this book 3.5 out of 5 (by my rather harsh scoring system).

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