Top critical review
Sharpe Thrashes the Wogs
on December 11, 2000
This book completes Cornwell's trilogy of historical novels chronicling Supersoldier Richard Sharpe's military career in India through 1803. The trilogy is a prequel to Sharpe's adventures during the Napoleonic Wars shown in a series on Masterpiece Theatre a few years ago. Sharpe is the eternal outsider: never fitting in; never accepted by his immediate superiors; always battling the incompetence and villainy that pervades the British army; and always winning the devotion and respect of those with "the right stuff". Like the entire series, this book is packed with great battle action and realistic gore. It is, as they say, a good read.
Where would Major General Arthur Wellsley(that shall be Duke of Wellington hereafter) be without Sharpe? Sharpe has already saved his life (in Sharpe's Triumph), earning himself promotion from the ranks. In Sharpe's Fortress he finds the key which allows Wellsley to capture Gawilghur, the impregnable stronghold of the Mahrattas, ending resistance to British rule in western India. In the future Sharpe will help Wellsley/Wellington restore his trooops' morale (Sharpe's Eagle), recover his hijacked payroll (Sharpe's Gold), expel the French from Spain (Sharpe's Honour) and win the battle of Waterloo (Sharpe's Waterloo).
Other reviewers, both amateur and professional, praise the accuracy of Cornwell's historical detail. I concur if that refers to details of life in the British Army of the early 19th century, the minutia of military equipment etc. There are some minor anachronisms in this book. Wellsley is referred to as "Sir Arthur" although he wasn't knighted until his return from India. Sharpe uses the image "quick as a jackrabbit" even though, as a London urchin, he would have had scant chance of knowing about a creature whose territory was just being explored by the first english-speakers like Lewis and Clark. Sharpe's nemesis, Sergeant Hakeswill, yearns "Haven't tasted a 'tater in months. Christian food, that, see?" despite the fact that potatoes did not become popular among English common folk until after the Napoleonic Wars.
My biggest quibble involves Corwell's historical perspective -- not his details. In his "Historical Note", he says that British losses at Gawilghur of 150 was a "small butcher's bill". He doesn't seem to count the thousands of Indians slaughtered there as part of the butcher's bill. He makes us see the inequalities and stupidities of the class-ridden British Army through Sharpe's eyes, but one will have to look elsewhere for a Mahratta's view of the events in the India of 1803.
Cornwell would have us see the British invaders as plucky, clever underdogs -- outnumbered and outgunned by fierce warriors in an impregnable fortress. Only in his afterword does he admit that the quick victory might lead one to "the supposition is that the defenders were thoroughly demoralized." But that won't do because it would turn the epic heroics of Sharpe and his friends into just another massacre! I find Sharpe and Wellsley easier to take when they are fighting Frogs rather than Wogs.