Bernard Cornwell – Sharpe’s Siege / Sharpe’s Revenge

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A couple of recent trips to Norway have afforded me the opportunity to pick up a couple of my Sharpe paperbacks to carry with me in my hand luggage. Definitely some the lightest of books in my enforced reading pool for 2019 (I’m still sticking to my ‘no new books’ New year’s resolution). The two books work well together as a pair, perhaps more so than many others in the series.

In Sharpe’s Siege, our hero is ordered to join a combined operation between the British Navy and Army to capture a key strategic castle, the Teste de Buch, on the French coast. The rather hateable Navy Captain Bampfylde leads the mission and a member of the French resistance Comte de Maquerre tags along. However, de Maquerre is a French spy in league with Napoleon’s spymaster and Sharpes’ nemesis Major Pierre Ducos.

Rather predictably Bampfylde finds himself unable to command the operation. Seems like there are very few competent commanders in the ranks. Sharpe has to intervene to avoid Bampfylde’s marines being ambushed. Sharpe and his riflemen capture the castle in swashbuckling style but of course Bampfylde claims the victory is his. This is nothing unusual in the Sharpe series – our hero saves the day only for someone else to take the credit. What is new I think is the amount of doubt an older wiser Sharpe has toward the battle. Sensing the French are soon to be defeated our hero is fearful both for the health of his wife Jane and for his life. Marriage he concludes is a recipe for fear.

Working for the castle’s French commader, Henri Lassan, is an American captain Cornelius Killick. Bampfylde wants to hang all of the Americans involved in the battle as pirates but Sharpe instead forces Killick to promise not to fight the English ever again and sets the ‘pirates’ free. Sharpe then begrudgingly follows his orders to march inland to see if rumours of a rising resistance to Napoleon are true. Sharpe attacks a French supply column, blows up a bridge and begins a retreat back to the castle. Sharpe meets de Maquerre who tells him that Bordeaux has risen in open rebellion.

Ahead of Sharpe’s arrival, the Frenchman goes to the castle and tells Bampfylde that Sharpe’s men have all been killed, and that the French forces will next be moving to retake the castle. Bampfylde effectively skuttles the castle and skedaddles on his ship. On his return to the castle, Sharpe is flabbergasted to find the castle empty, the cannons spiked, the main arsenal blown up and all the food gone. Fearing the worst, he sets about organising his men to do what they can to make the castle defendable.

Ducos joins with General Calvet in commanding the French forces to lay siege to the Teste de Buch. The British survive several attacks, at one point in desperation resorting to pouring lime on their attackers. Sharpe sneaks out of the castle under the cover of night and meets Killick to call in whatever favours he can. Killick wants release from his promise not to fight the English and so a deal is struck.

In the morning Killick looks like he is going to obey Ducos’s orders in bombarding the castle walls with his ship’s cannon, but before any real damage is done Sharpe surrenders the castle to the Americans. The French have been outwitted and while they dither over the legalities of attacking what is now technically an American castle, Sharpe and his men board Killick’s ship. Killick drops Sharpe and his men off in a safe area and they march back to British lines. Sharpe finds Bampfylde and very publicly gives the captain a piece of his mind for deserting the castle and kills the French spy de Maquerre.

Sharpe’s Revenge starts off with Sharpe on very poor terms with Jane his wife. She disagrees with his plans to illegally duel with Bampfylde. Jane fears he’ll either be killed or ruin his career. To keep her quiet Sharpe tells her to go home to England and gives her power of attorney over the fortune he shared from previous exploits with his brother in arms Harper. In the duel, Bampfylde suffers an embarrassing buttock-based wound and Sharpe feels that justice has been served for the captain’s cowardice.

Sharpe gets decisively involved in the Battle of Toulouse. He passes up the opportunity to shoot General Calvet in the back during the French’s retreat and soon after the battle, the end of the war is declared. Sharpe, Harper and one-eyed Frederickson, travel to Bordeaux to wait to return to England. He discovers that Jane has emptied his account back in England, but before he can do anything about it, Sharpe and Frederickson are falsely accused of stealing Napoleon’s treasure and arrested.

The treasure was supposedly hidden at the Teste de Buch and removed by Sharpe and his men during their escape from the siege. The fact that they could not between them carry that much gold and gems is apparently beside the point. A witness statement supposedly in the hand of the castle’s commander Lassan but forged by Ducos is the source of the false allegation. Ducos, now turned traitor to Napoleon since his defeat, has the treasure and wants to frame his enemy Sharpe for its disappearance.

Against Sharpe’s wishes Jane buys an expensive town house in London. She learns of Sharpe’s arrest and contacts Lord Rossendale one of Sharpe’s allies in England. It’s not long before Jane’s head is turned and she and the Lord become lovers. For me this seemed contrary to Jane’s character in previous books, but we were, I guess, always seeing Jane through the eyes of a besotted Sharpe and perhaps she is only now revealing her true colours.

Harper helps the captives to escape and in a quest for exoneration they set out to find Lassan. On the run from the law, Sharpe’s party arrives at Lassan’s house in the French countryside. Unfortunately what they don’t know is that he has been killed by assassins sent by Ducos. Lassan’s sister, Lucille, mistakes Sharpe as one of the assassins and shoots him, seriously injuring him. Frederickson explains the truth of the matter and Sharpe is gradually nursed back to health. Frederickson falls in love with Lucille, but I kind of figured that she’d actually fall in love with Sharpe despite his initial (understandably) bad attitude toward her. She’s only human after all.

Sharpe sends Harper to England to try and figure out what the Dickens has happened to Jane. Frederickson proposes to Lucille. She refuses. He goes to Paris to whore away his heartbreak and try to find Ducos. While he’s away, Sharpe and Lucille become lovers. Harper returns to the country house and, in a cringeworthy scene in which they both very much beat about the proverbial bush, he confirms to Sharpe that Jane is lost to him.

Frederickson finds out that Ducos is masquerading as a Polish count in Naples and spending Napoleon’s booty, so the three travel to Italy. Napoleon, in exile on Elba, gets wind of this and sends General Calvet to intercept. Calvet contacts the cardinal in Naples for help but he misjudges the greed of the holy man. It’s another repeated theme in Cornwell’s books that the church cannot be trusted.

Calvet intercepts Sharpe and friends, and they agree to retrieve the treasure for Napoleon in return for clearing their names. They raid Duco’s hideout and corner the French traitor. However the cardinals’ troops turn up to confiscate the treasure. Just when it looks like our heroes are doomed, Sharpe has a cunning plan and literally showers the troops with gold. Chaos ensues, during which the allies fill their pockets and escape with Ducos as prisoner.

Ducos, once a bright star in Napoleon’s regime, is executed. Sharpe and Frederickson are exonerated. Harper leaves the army and goes home to Ireland where his wife is waiting for him. Everything looks rosy until Sharpe admits how he feels about Lucille. Frederickson, still besotted with the woman, feels betrayed and leaves. Sharpe, who always dreamt of returning to England and buying a cottage somewhere in Dorset once the war was over, stays with Lucille in France.

Revenge is a rather more satisfying read than Siege because, while the latter is rather ‘Sharpe by numbers’, the former contains some interesting twists and turns, and indeed more insights into the mind of the main character who is oftentimes presented as a monolithic constant like James Bond or Jack Reacher.

Siege also seems to be a fitting end to the original series. However with the Battle of Waterloo on the horizon there’s no prizes for figuring out where Sharpe might turn up next…

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