In this installment in Cornwell's Napoleonic War series, Sharpe and his riflemen are sent by Lord Wellington on a secret mission to recover a huge cache of Spanish gold deep in French held territory. At this point in the war (August 1810), the British have been driven from Spain, and French armies are marching on Portugal. Meanwhile, the army has run out of money and without the gold, the British will have to abandon Lisbon, and the war. Sharpe's mission introduces him (and the reader) to the uneasy diplomacy between England and Spain, as for the first time, Shape encounters Spanish partisans fighting the French. The partisans currently have the gold, and are loathe to relinquish it to the English troops, whom they don't trust. In each book in the series there is a main villain, here it is the partisan leader, a cruel warlord called "El Catholico." And, in each book in the series there is a beautiful woman, here Teressa, who will play an important and long running role in the series. True to form, she falls into his bed a little too readily, but that's par for the course in the series.
SPOILER WARNING << Read no Further: Plot Twists to Be Revealed! >>
As usual, even once Sharpe successfully extricates the gold and his company from the partisans, and then French forces, he still must battle his greatest foe: army bureaucracy. Holed up in the fortress of Almeida, he is ordered by the garrison commander to relinquish the gold to Spanish representatives. Unwilling to let that happen, he comes up with a rather drastic way to avoid the command--blow up the garrison, thus dissolving the commander's authority! Cornwell bases this on the real explosion of the magazine that destroyed Almeida, but it seems a rather extreme solution, even for the ruthless Sharpe. Pursing his "break a few eggs to make an omlette" plan, Sharpe's explosion ends up killing around 500 British soldiers--rank and file soldiers just like him. He grapples with his remorse momentarily, but it's a monumentally guilt-inducing event that seems not to have caused Sharpe many sleepless nights later in the series (at least the ones I've read so far). Considering Cornwell's has Sharpe's repeatedly recall his whipping in India, and other traumatic events from his past, it seems a slight misstep that the climax of this book doesn't affect him in later ones (although perhaps in working my way through the rest of the series, I'll find myself wrong).
In any event, it's a fairly solid entry in the series.