Bernard Cornwell – Sharpe’s Sword

Sharpe’s Sword by Bernard Cornwell is the fourth book he wrote in the series and was published all the way back in 1983. I read it as the fourteenth in the chronological order of the main character military hero Richard Sharpe. Sharpe is once again at war, this time during Wellington’s summer campaign of 1812. However, this book concentrates on the espionage of the English and French spies who were gathering pivotal information about troop movements and strategy from behind enemy lines.

As ever there is a bad guy for Sharpe to fight and a sexy lady for Sharpe to bed (despite him being married to the absent Teresa). The bad guy is the sadistic Colonel Philippe Leroux who is captured but then kills his parole escort. Sharpe is very interested in owning the chap’s Klingenthal sabre and swears to kill him and take the weapon. The love interest is the elaborately titled Hélène, La Marquesa de Casares el Grande y Melida Sadaba a local noble woman with a taste for rough soldiers (despite being married to an absent lord).

At one point Sharpe is seemingly mortally wounded by Leroux after flushing him out of his hiding place in a French fort in Salamanca. In the process Sharpe’s sword is broken. His company hold a funeral ceremony for him, but he’s later found in a ‘death room’ in the basement of a hospital by Hogan and Harper and brought back to health by Hélène with whom he is having a secret affair. Harper makes Sharpe a new sword while he is recuperating.

Despite not being fully healed, Sharpe rejoins the British forces and is involved in forcing the French to retreat across the unguarded bridge at Alba de Tormes. Intent on finding Leroux, Sharpe, Hogan and Harper pursue the retreating French through the night. Along with some cavalry units, they are ambushed the next day by French infantry who form up in supposedly impenetrable squares. But miraculously the squares are broken and Sharpe duels with Leroux and kills him.

Sharpe finally gets the Klingenthal sword he’s been after and also retrieves the McGuffin of the whole story – a coded book listing all the secret agents working against the French. Hélène is implicated as a French spy, much to Sharpe’s dismay, and she leaves Salamanca under a cloud. In a very symbolic act, Sharpe throws the Klingenthal off the bridge and into the river Tormes. Teresa pops up at the end of the book to say hello and remind Sharpe of his obligations. Sharpe’s titular sword (the one Harper crafted) represents the two men’s friendship and soldierly bond.

I found it to be one of the more enjoyable of the Sharpe series and it’s no surprise that it was used in 1995 as a basis for the eighth instalment of the ITV television series – although the characters and plot were changed quite a bit to fit in with the previous episodes. I now have seven books to go before I’m done – coincidentally it’s the same number of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels I have left to read – although that will no doubt be added to by Child.

Image: detail from an image in the British Library’s Flickr collection.

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