2009: 2nd Quarter [21]

Hearn, Chester G. Army: An Illustrated History. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press/MBI Publishing, 2006.

This is a not-bad anecdotal history of the U.S. Army (not armies in general) by a non-academic military history buff. He begins at the beginning, with the colonial militia in New England exterminating the Narragansett Indians, and by the end of Chapter 2 he has reached the beginning of the 20th Century. This hectic pace slows in the following seven chapters, which cover the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. The author generally takes a rah-rah approach to his subject, which is to be expected these days, but he does seem to manage a balanced narrative most of time, pointing out (for instance) that McKinley was decidedly unenthusiastic about war with Spain and that Theodore Roosevelt’s Medal of Honor for San Juan Hill was purely political. Nor is he an apologist for U.S. expansionism in the Pacific and Latin America. The chapter on Pershing and the AEF seems a bit disjointed, but the two chapters on World War II (one each for Europe and the Pacific) is a good survey. I approached the Vietnam chapter somewhat reluctantly since that’s my generation’s war, but Hearn manages not to call names and recognizes the key role played by reluctant and resentful draftees in the U.S. defeat. (You can’t force soldiers to accept the necessity of a given war if they don’t really believe it.) It’s also refreshing to read an unblinkered account of figures like Patton, MacArthur, and Audie Murphy. He often includes appreciation of military leaders like Stilwell and Buckner, too, who are less well-known today. Coverage of women and blacks in the army, on the other hand, is a bit thin, but it’s there. As he enters the Reagan era, however, Hearn begins to leave objectivity behind; the invasion of Grenada is, for him, principally an opportunity to experiment with new military doctrine. He also falls into the common conservative calumny of blaming all military failures on the media and/or politicians — forgetting that, in a democracy, the military command structure is not going to be allowed to run everything its own way without civilian control. By the time of the first Gulf War, he’s in full cheerleader mode and Bush’s invasion of Iraq is not only justified but glorious. The final chapter, “Into the Future,” is positively poetic in its promises of the “Army of One” and its unbeatable new weapons systems, . . . which, one suspects, will be just as vulnerable to cheap IEDs. Of course, this is first and foremost an illustrated history, and while there are a few very well-known photos (Eisenhower delivering a pep talk to the 101st just before the Normandy landings), most are probably new to most readers. Not a bad book for what it is, as long as you read the last third of the volume with your eyes open. (6/29/09)

McDermid, Val. A Darker Domain. NY: Harper, 2009.

McDermid is a terrific writer of mysteries, adroitly mixing detection and police procedure with laser-like analyses of human motivations. Since she’s a Scot, her plots are always set in Scotland, and this time the venue is Fife, scene of one of the most crushing miners’ strikes in British history — Margaret Thatcher’s attempt in 1984 to give the capitalist bosses what they most wanted by nearly destroying trade unionism altogether. Mick Prentice was part of that era, and when he disappeared one night everyone assumed he’d joined up with some other miners headed south as a blackleg scab. Now his daughter needs to find him, to persuade him to provide a bone marrow transplant for her son. And DI Karen Pirie, head of Fife’s cold case squad, looking into the matter on the daughter’s behalf, discovers the old assumptions were completely wrong. So what really happened to Mick? Where did he disappear to, and why? At the some time, Karen has another hot case drop into her lap: The twenty-two-year-old kidnap/murder of the daughter and grandson of one of Scotland’s wealthiest (and most manipulative) tycoons. Some evidence has turned up in a semi-ruined villa in Tuscany, found by Bel Richmond, a first-rate investigative journalist from London on a holiday. Karen makes no distinctions between the dead, regardless of the preferences of her superior, who would rather fawn on the tycoon, and soon she and her partner are deep into both cases. McDermid is expert at weaving multiple plots about one another, and also at skipping back and forth between the 1980s and the present without ever confusing the reader. An excellent piece of work — but I give fair warning: McDermid is a realist who doesn’t really believe in happy endings. (6/26/09)

Gibson, John. Anatomy of the Castle. NY: Metrobooks, 2001.

Whether it’s your basic, practical Norman motte and bailey, built quickly of trimmed logs and heaped-up dirt, or whether it’s King Ludwig’s picturesque Neuschwanstein fantasy, castles of all sorts are fascinating to a great many people. Since I have a strong, quasi-professional interest in medieval warfare, I find the surviving “working” castles in this oversize volume of particular interest. Gibson is a career officer and Sandhurst graduate, and he does a respectable job of combining political and military history with (lets face it) a pictorial tour guide to Europe’s most interesting fortifications. Though he goes heavy on Britain, of course. The approach is historical, from the Roman proto-castles, the Norman invention of the stone keep, and the crusader castles of the Middle East, to the classics like Dover Castle and Raglan, to the reasons for the replacement of the tall, vertical wall by the drastically redesigned artillery fort and star-shaped town fortification. The last section combines the 19th century taste for follies in the form of miniature castles (Walter Scott and Ivanhoe have a lot to answer for) with a discussion of what it was like to live in a castle, both in peacetime and under siege. There’s not a lot here that’s original, but the author is mostly successful at synthesizing numerous previous sources. He does make some odd editorial choices, though. He almost entirely ignores Windsor Castle — nine centuries old and the largest inhabited castle in Europe — yet includes the Alhambra, which I have a lot of trouble thinking of as a “castle.” There are also a few typos (I’m pretty sure the relief of Orleans by Joan of Arc was in 1429, not 1492), but this volume is nevertheless a great way to lose a weekend. (6/22/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt. NY: Harper, 2009.

The Battle of Agincourt, on St. Crispins’s Day, October, 1415, is almost legendary among military encounters — especially those that took place in the long, long struggle between England and France. A force of maybe 6,000 Englishmen (the majority of them archers), led by the energetic Henry V, met and heavily defeated an army of some 30,000 French knights and men-at-arms. The French aristocracy was practically destroyed while the English suffered no more than a few hundred casualties. Cornwell’s prose can get a little purple around the edges at times, but there’s no better author working today when it comes to describing land battles, making them come alive, and explaining the tactics and strategy without ever quite appearing to do so. The focus of the story is Nick Hook, a forester for the lord of a small village who is also one of the most talented bowmen in England. To escape a feud, as well as the punishment for striking a priest, he takes work as a mercenary in Soissons the year before and barely escapes when that city is sacked by the French themselves. He gets recruited for the king’s expedition back across the Channel — Henry has a claim on the French throne and he means to pursue it — and finds himself in the van from the landing near Harfleur to the final act in the plowed fields near the minor castle of Agincourt. He’s not really as fully developed a character as he might have been, but the two main “characters” in the story are actually the English and French armies. The English had archers, the product of decades of dedicated training in villages and towns throughout the island, who could get off twelve to fifteen arrows a minute. Multiplied by five thousand archers, that’s six thousand arrows in sixty seconds. They also had the highly charismatic King Henry, while the French were sorely lacking in the leadership department. Finally, there was the weather. A downpour across the newly-plowed fields the night before meant the heavily-armored French had to struggle through calf-deep mud to reach the enemy. The result was something you would think the French would have learned to avoid after Crecy and Poitiers, but no. This book doesn’t have the swashbuckling and angst that fans of the “Sharpe” series might expect, but it’s good read. (6/20/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Waterloo. NY: Viking, 1990.

Waterloo was the punctuation mark at the end of a generation-long struggle between Britain and France, and this well-written novel is likewise the full stop at the end of the adventurous career of Richard Sharpe, once a private soldier in a red coat, then a sergeant, then a low-ranking officer, and now — finally — a light colonel, called out of his brief retirement in Normandy to serve as a sort of figurehead on the staff of the young, thoroughly incompetent Prince of Orange. Sharpe commands no battalion, which gives Cornwell the freedom to move him around the relatively tiny battlefield wherever things are happening. As Wellington noted the next day, the battle was a very near run thing. The French came vey, very close to winning and Wellington had already sent all the regimental colours back to safety to avoid their being taken by the enemy. The key action, in retrospect was the defeat of the two Imperial Guard columns — the very first defeat that elite corps had ever suffered — by exhausted but still rapid-firing British infantry. Waterloo has been more heavily studied, interpreted, and written about than any single battle except Gettysburg. But experts still disagree how the second, slightly smaller Guard column was turned back down from the crest of the ridge, so that’s where Cornwell places Sharpe, who takes full, official command of his old outfit, the South Essex, and helps to save the day. Nitpickers will find fault, I’m sure, with the few small changes the author makes in the flow of events, but the story is very well told, one day at a time, and the reader will not be disappointed.

PS — I’m puzzled that so many critics of this series (many of them, apparently, on the Continent) complain because Sharpe, the sometimes larger-than-life hero of the series, is . . . well, too heroic. They complain because Sharpe, a quintessential Englishman (though he might disagree), sees the war through English eyes. His opinion of England’s allies and enemies are those of the typical short-sighted Englishman. What do they expect? Sharpe doesn’t live in the European Union, he’s the product of nearly twenty years of warfare between his country and France. History is history, and no amount of caviling is going to turn the Belgian-Dutch into heroes, or make the Portuguese love the Spanish, or make the British love Napoleon, or make the Prussians less Prussian. (6/17/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Revenge. NY: Viking, 1989.

It’s the early spring of 1814, Wellington has taken his Peninsular army across Spain and into southwest France, and seems like Napoleon’s days are numbered. Richard Sharpe, now a major but without a command, is feeling his age, too; he’s been a soldier fighting the French for more than twenty of his thirty-eight years, and he’s beginning to wonder if he’s finally used up. He knows he’s more afraid before battle than he used to be, and he worries more — but perhaps that’s because he has a lovely young wife now, so he has a lot more to lose. Cornwell’s real talent is in depicting the minutiae of the course of battle, and the book opens with the British assault on Toulouse, which actually took place after the Emperor’s abdication. Then the plot goes off on a tangent (as it often does in this series) as Sharpe’s nemesis, the French spymaster, Pierre Ducos, decides to rip off part of Napoleon’s treasure and go off on his own. He arranges to blame the loss on the always convenient Sharpe, who is called on the carpet and seems to be facing arrest and court martial. Sharpe is dealing now not with the military but with the bean-counters from London, so, of course, he takes matters into his own hands and with Sgt. Harper and another officer and goes off to find the French officers who can testify to his innocence. He ends up in Normandy and becomes involved with a young, impoverished farm widow who also happens to be a vicontesse — which is also convenient, since his own wife, back in London, has taken a lover and stolen the fortune Sharpe managed to steal after Vitoria a few months before. The three companions track Ducos to Naples and there’s a rousing finish in which they combine their small force with a imperial-loyalist general in retrieving both the treasure and Ducos. It’s all a bit far-fetched, actually. Toulouse is the only set-piece battle this time, but we all know what’s coming in a year and a half. (6/13/09)

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. NY: Tor, 2008.

Like Neal Stephenson, Doctorow specializes in shooting off ideas in all directions like a St. Catherine Wheel. His last novel wasn’t very good (in my opinion), but this cautionary tale shows he hasn’t lost his stuff. In fact, this may be his best yet. It’s certainly his most political. Marcus is seventeen and a native San Franciscan. He’s a talented tech hacker, an enthusiastic games-player, a natural leader, and occasionally a smart-ass, but he’s a good kid with what looks like a bright future. But everything changes the morning terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge and an underwater BART tunnel, killing several thousand commuters. Marcus and his three best friends are yanked off the street by masked heavies, hooded, and dumped into jail cells, where they are questioned about the attack. The problem is , Marcus always carries around a certain amount of not-quite-legal toys and tools with him, and his interrogators — who turn out to be the Department of Homeland Security, America’s very own Gestapo — want to know all about them. After being frightened out of his wits, Marcus is turned loose. Bad mistake by the Bad Guys. When he comes to grips with himself and discovers that his closest friend is still missing, he vows revenge. And you don’t want to mess with a very tech-savvy, very motivated teenager who sees his city being turned into a model of total government surveillance. The scariest part is when a substitute teacher (supplied by the DHS) begins explaining to the class why the Bill of Rights is less important that physical safety and why the “war” against the terrorists trumps every civil liberty you can think of. It’s scary because there are actually plenty of people who think that way. I have to wonder, though, how the DHS managed to respond in huge numbers in a single city without advance information about where the attack would take place. Or maybe Doctorow is letting us draw our own conclusions there. On the other hand, this story could only have been set someplace like the Bay Area; in Cleveland or Miami or Atlanta, there would have been almost no chance of an underground uprising. Still, there’s a strong Heinleinian undercurrent here, and the Good Guys don’t win completely in the end, but this book should be read by anyone suspicious of the government’s motives in putting cameras on every corner and in continuing to maintain the Patriotic Act. (6/05/09)

Tomine, Adrian. Shortcomings. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2007.

Not many graphic novels become New York Times Notable Books of the Year, but Tomine is a better artist and a much, much better writer than most of his competition. The setting here is Berkeley and the main cast includes Ben, the Japanese-American manager of a movie theater; Miko, his grad student girlfriend who’s getting tired of Ben’s passive-aggressive fits; and Alice, Ben’s aggressively gay Korean buddy for a decade. Miko has a chance to go to New York for a few months and jumps at it, which Ben (of course) sees as an attack on him. Alice puts up with his deep personality flaws as she works her way through the student body at Mills College. But let’s face it: With Ben, everything is always about him, and he’s a dork besides, with only embryonic social skills and no grasp at all of the racial or ethnic undercurrents among his peers. The story is the best kind of slice-of-life. In fact, it’s so well written, it doesn’t really need the art; it could have been equally successful as a “regular” novel. Happily, the artwork is also first-rate. (5/31/09)

Abel, Jessica, Gabe Soria, & Warren Pleece. Life Sucks. NY: First Second, 2008.

Dave Miller is a typical 20-something Angelino in a dead-end job, managing an all-night convenience store for a boss from the Olde Country who lectures him about his work ethic. The difference is, in this generally good graphic novel, Dave is a recently-made vampire, his boss is also his master, and the store is a favorite quick-shop stop for LA’s undead community. Dave’s apparently doomed to a long, long lifetime of rotating the hot dogs and restocking the Blood Brew. Because, as much as the goth girls at the local juice bar would like to think otherwise, this is the reality of vampirism in the 21st century. Dave, who is cursed with a baby-face and a wimpish personality, has his eye on one of those girls but doesn’t quite know what to do about it. His undead buddy, Jerome (who runs a quick-copy shop for another vampire master), tries hard to help out, but Dave’s going to need a lot of help — especially in dealing with the wealthy surfer dude who wants the girl, too. There’s a good story here, some effective deadpan humor, and a pretty good grasp of life as it is lived, but the artwork isn’t up to the level of the writing. The author should have gotten someone like Adrian Tomine or Michel Rabagliati. (5/30/09)

Rankin, Ian. Exit Music. NY: Little, Brown, 2007.

When it comes to mystery novels, I’m not ordinarily a devotee of police procedurals, but I make an exception for Rankin’s long-running series featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus of Edinburgh CID. Rebus is not at all a bent copper, but he’s not squeaky-clean, either. He’s been known to bend a rule or ten in his pursuit of the bad guys, and it’s gotten him into trouble on numerous occasions. But now, after a career of more than three decades, mandatory retirement is about to take him out of the game. Everyone expects his sidekick for the past few years, DS Siobhan Clarke, to be promoted into his place, and with less than two weeks until he takes his pension, he’s trying to interest her in the inevitable unsolved cases he has accumulated. Then what appears to be a fatal mugging gets called in and the two are thrown into the middle of a complex case involving Scotland’s economic and political future, Russian neo-capitalists with big money to invest, an amoral clutch of Scots bankers, and the ordinary street crime that makes Edinburgh such an interesting place for Rebus to live and work. Moreover, a semi-reformed gangster who has been Rebus’s nemesis almost throughout his career, turns up in the midst of things. Edinburgh isn’t really that large a city, but even Rebus marvels at how everything and everyone in this case seems to connect and lead back to each other. Rebus is not an entirely likable person (as he would certainly be the first to tell you), but Rankin has the knack of portraying his characters in at least four dimensions. And the city is as much a character as the cops and robbers. (5/29/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Siege. NY: Viking, 1987.

Reading the flap copy, I had my doubts about this one — since acquiring some rank, Sharpe seems always to be sent off on special assignments (allowing the author to showcase him) instead of being in the line of battle — but actually it’s a pretty good story. It’s 1814 and the British have begun the invasion of France, but they still have only a toe-hold down in the southwest corner of the country. An ambitious and arrogant young naval captain has dreams of glory about fomenting a royalist uprising in Bordeaux and Sharpe gets dragged into the scheme — and stripped of his majority as well, although he seems to keep the rank throughout the book. Sharpe’s nemesis, Pierre Ducos, an intelligence handler for the emperor, schemes to corner Sharpe and destroy him, but Our Hero, of course, doesn’t make things easy. The tiny British land force is marooned and has to defend a decaying fort — which makes for an interesting read since Sharpe has so often been involved in assaults on fortresses. The Americans are in the war, too, now, and a privateer named Killick (whom Cornwell is careful to portray as neither a Good Guy nor a Bad Guy) comes to Sharpe’s rescue in an interestingly backhanded fashion. Not Cornwell’s best, but not bad. (5/25/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Regiment. NY: Viking, 1986.

This installment begins about a week after the Battle of Vitoria, the set-piece battle of the previous volume, and it’s rather a strange beast. Pending the arrival of a new lieutenant-colonel to replace the last one, Major Richard Sharpe is more or less in charge of the 1st Battalion of the South Essex Regiment. But because of accumulated battle losses, the battalion is badly under-strength and has been assigned temporarily to guarding warehouses. Inquiring where the expected replacements are, Sharpe is told there aren’t going to be any — and the regiment may just be chopped up and parceled out. Sharpe takes Sgt. Harper (newly promoted to regimental sergeant major) and a couple of dependable junior officers and heads back to England to find out what’s going on — and it almost gets him killed. It’s a pretty good story, actually, and funny in places, and there’s a romantic subplot, but it all seems just a little too unlikely. Cornwell’s very good at describing battle scenes, and he manages to stay pretty close to the facts in the process, but this business is made up from whole cloth and it just doesn’t have the usual believability of a Sharpe novel. And Cornwell’s version of the assault on Nivelle is relegated to an Epilogue. (5/08/09)

Urban, Mark. Wellington’s Rifles: Six Years to Waterloo with England’s Legendary Sharpshooters. NY: Walker, 2004.

Every single review I have seen of this first-rate volume of military history alludes to Bernard Cornwell’s popular fictional rifleman, Richard Sharpe — as if no one had ever heard of the 95th Rifle Regiment before his series of novels. The 95th, though, has long been considered one of history’s great fighting units, an accumulator of battle honors, a repository of uncommon individual bravery and group valor. Beginning in the spring of 1809, after the 95th was largely overhauled and rebuilt and shipped off to resume its duties in Portugal, Urban narrows his focus on six men in the 1st Battalion — a captain, a lieutenant, and six privates — as exemplars of the regiment. The author takes this approach because he’s primarily a journalist (and a good one), and the decision to give the regiment a thoroughly human face is a wise one, compared to the bird’s-eye perspective a more academic historian would probably have taken. Urban relies on diaries and soldiers’ letters — an amazing quantity of which were produced during the Napoleonic era — and his vivid accounts of the battles and sieges at Talavera, Busaco, Fuentes d’Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vitoria, Quatre Bras, and Waterloo will keep you up reading late into the night. And inbetween them are a number of excellent chapters on topics like desertion, treatment of the wounded, and the officers’ mess. A first-rate book. (4/29/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Honor. NY: Viking, 1985.

Richard Sharpe, once a private in the British army’s ranks and now a major in a battalion of the South Essex Regiment, seems to spend more time these days as an intelligence operative than as a soldier. It’s 1813 and the British under Wellington have finally pushed Napoleon’s occupying armies almost back to the Pyrenees. But a revenge-seeking French spymaster whom Sharpe insulted in the last book arranges for him to be charged with murder. And the “soldier’s soldier” is convicted and hanged. (The End.) Actually, his friend, Hogan, has sent him off to find out why the French are pursuing certain policies — and to recover his own reputation and clear his name if he can manage it. The book ends with Sharpe returning from the dead just in time to take part in the stunning British victory at Vitoria — arguably the most important engagement in the Peninsular Campaign — but Cornwell gives it very short shrift indeed. So while the actual story isn’t bad, I’d still rather Sharpe spend his time leading his men in battle. That’s where Cornwell’s greatest talent is, and he seldom has to invent more than the minimum amount of detail — which tells you something about what the Napoleonic wars in Portugal and Spain were really like. (4/29/09)

Simone, Gail. Welcome to Tranquility: Book Two. La Jolla, CA: Windstorm Productions, 2008.

This second compilation of six original comics comes out a little better than the first collection, mostly because it consists largely of origin stories for the main characters in the series. Zombie Zeke, a direct steal from the Crypt-Keeper, began as an Elvis-type rocker who signed a pact with a demon. Sheriff Thomasina was a wild child who couldn’t deal with family issues and got into too many fights in school. Emoticon (one of Simone’s more original inventions) was corrupted by his Bad Guy grandfather, the Typist. And so on. The Liberty Snots, a younger gang of goth-type “heroes,” gets a few back stories, too. But the narrative is still pretty much all over the place, as if the original story was twice as long and they only printed every other page. The art is okay but nothing special. I’ll give this series an “E” for effort, but not much more. (4/26/09)

Simone, Gail. Welcome to Tranquility: Book One. La Jolla, CA: Windstorm Productions, 2008.

Ever since Kurt Busiek invented Astro City, comic writers have been setting their stories in that narrow space where the world of superheroes and supervillains intersects with the ordinary human world. Simone’s contribution is the small town of Tranquility, where costumed heroes and a few reformed Bad Guys go to retire and raise families. The local diner, where Judge Fury (now the mayor), Bad Dog, and the others chow down on the fried chicken platter, is run by the Pink Bunny. If you do the math, the fact that these people — most of whom aren’t “super” at all — fought the Axis in the 1930s and ‘40s makes them much older than they look. But that’s not bad art, as it turns out, it’s part of the larger plot. There are some nice bits, like the little accountant-looking guy who can’t remember the magic word that turns him into Maxi Man, and the billionaire ex-child hero of the air who keeps inventing new aircraft — and crashing them. And the tongue-in-cheekiness is fun (especially in the reprints of “original” comics featuring Tranquility’s denizens), intimating that the reader shouldn’t take all this too seriously. The best part probably is the gang of new-style teenage “heroes” on the goth pattern, offspring of the more traditional heroes, who call themselves the Liberty Snots. But the narrative has way too many gaps. I kept turning back, thinking I had skipped a page. And the character who ties most of the brief one-issue plots together (and is therefore the most developed) is Thomasina, the sheriff, and the granddaughter of a costumed hero but apparently quite human herself. The art, mostly by Neil Googe, is okay but unremarkable. I kept thinking that this new series would have come out much better in Buziek’s hands. (4/24/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Enemy. NY: Viking, 1984.

This one is something of a departure for the Sharpe series. All the books in the series thus far focus the plot on an historical campaign or battle, or even more than one. But the protracted holding action carried out by the newly promoted Major Richard Sharpe in the high, narrow valley in northwestern Spain, with its abandoned fortress and convent, never happened. The place where it happened never existed. Still, it’s a rousing story and it gives Cornwell the opportunity to show off his hero’s winning combination of leadership and inventiveness. The reason Sharpe’s up there in the first place is to bring to book an “army” of deserters from both sides (yes, they did exist), and to rescue the female prisoners they Bad Guys are holding hostage — an operation in which he cooperates under a truce with a French colonel very much like himself. But then the larger French force begins moving in and Sharpe knows he has to hold the pass against them as long as possible, to prevent the enemy from sweeping back into north Portugal. And he possesses a secret weapon in Congreve’s Rocket System — which also is real, “the rockets’ red glare.” Sharpe is amazingly successful, of course, and he’s able, finally, to remove an old implacable enemy, but he’s also stricken with personal tragedy at the vey end. Historical or not, this is a pretty good installment in the series. (4/23/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Sword. NY: Viking Press, 1983.

One of the great pleasures of the Rifleman Sharpe series, at least for me, is the attention the author gives to explaining — always in context, never lecturing — exactly what was going on in the Napoleonic world and what the relevant military strategies and tactics were, and why. This installment end with such a lesson. It was settled wisdom that cavalry could not defeat infantry formed in a square. A square could be broken by artillery (obviously) or by other infantry units, but not by a bunch of big guys on horseback, and Cornwell showed us exactly why that was the case in Sharpe’s Battle (written later by chronologically earlier). But war, like life generally, is full of surprises and his careful depiction of the German Legion’s “impossible” victory at Garcia Hernandez is not only jaw-dropping but absolutely factual. The main plot this time, however, is less about the battlefield and more about the quiet little espionage war that went on behind the scenes between the agents of both sides. Here the conflict is set in Salamanca and, again, it’s true to history. Sharpe, married or not, has one of his periodic love affairs and gets caught up in that quiet but very dirty war — and nearly dies as a result. The Sharpe novels are frequently driven at least partly by revenge and this one is no exception. Pretty good, though. By the way, because Cornwell is so careful with his history and his descriptions, it’s fun to go to Google Earth after finishing one of his books and examining what the towns and battle sites are like today. (4/15/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Company. NY: Viking, 1982.

This was the third novel written in the Richard Sharpe Napoleonic Wars series, though by internal chronology it’s about halfway through Sharpe’s recorded career. It’s early 1812 and the comparatively small British-Portuguese army under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, now Lord Wellington, is about to undertake the invasion of Spain. But first, they have to take the fortified Ciudad Rodrigo, guarding the principal highway in the north. Sharpe has a part in that, naturally — and then he’s reunited with Teresa, the Partisan leader from Sharpe’s Gold, and finds out he’s a father. Now the army will move south to attempt (for the third time) to take the much larger and much more formidable city of Badajoz. Things appear to be looking up. But Sharpe is never lucky for very long, and when his badly wounded colonel (his old friend from India, Lawford) is shipped back home, the replacement is a fox-hunting countryman with no patience for Sharpe’s somewhat eccentric ways. More than that, Sharpe’s temporary promotion has been rejected back in London and he finds himself replaced in command of the Light Company by a young officer with the funds to have purchased the position. Sharpe is back to being a lieutenant, at least until a vacancy opens up. To retrieve his command, and in a way that no one can deprive him of it again, he’s determined to be the first man through the breach when they assault Badajoz. But, worst of all, Sgt. Obediah Hakeswill has joined the battalion. Hakeswill is a thief, blackmailer, inveterate liar, and the man who not only recruited Sharpe nearly twenty years before but also got him unjustly flogged when he was just a private. He’s also increasingly insane, believing (with some justification) that he cannot be killed — and he harbors a passionate hatred for Sharpe. The reader can sort of see where all this melodrama is going, but it’s the journey that Cornwell makes fascinating. Badajoz was one of Wellington’s greatest challenges in the Peninsular Campaign and taking it cost him thousands of casualties. Cornwell takes his time telling of the siege, the assault, and the sack that followed, and does it all with his usual attention to the gritty, bloody details. (4/10/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Battle. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.

Cornwell has written this series all out of order, which is okay, but his style also evolved somewhat as he went along. The later-written volumes are much cleaner and less “hammy.” Which means if you read the series by internal chronology, as I’ve been doing, there’s a certain amount of up-and-down from one volume to the next. Anyway, it’s spring 1811 and Sharpe is back in Portugal commanding the badly depleted Light Company of the South Essex Regiment. Then he has to take responsibility for a battalion of exiled Irishmen who have been serving as a guard unit to the imprisoned King Ferdinand of Spain. They’re all glitter and no substance and Sharpe is supposed to arrange for them to fail so Lord Wellington will have an excuse to send them packing without upsetting the Spanish. But of course, being a contrary sort of person, Sharpe decides to take them in hand and make them into an effective unit. Enter the French Loup Brigade, a specialized unit that hunts down partisans and makes broad use of terror to accomplish its ends, and its leader has a bone to pick with Sharpe regarding his summary execution of a couple of child-rapists. Add in Col. Runciman, the army’s obese Wagon Master General, who knows he’s no kind of soldier (his parents wanted him to become a bishop), whom Sharpe comes to like despite himself. And then there’s a spy who’s sleeping with the ne’er-do-well commander of the Irish battalion. All these plots and subplots come to a head in the little village of Fuentes do Onoro, where the British and Portuguese come within minutes of losing the battle to the much larger French army — which will mean losing the entire war. All the melodrama with the Loup Brigade and Runciman takes up the first half of the book; it’s not one of the author’s better efforts, frankly. His account of the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro, on the other hand, is gripping in its nearly cinematic detail. No one can make you see the streams of blood flowing down the hill and taste the salt from the bitten-off cartridges like Cornwell. (4/06/09)

Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Fury. NY: HarperCollins, 2006.

This is one of the more self-indulgent in the Richard Sharpe series about a roguish British rifleman during the Napoleonic wars. It could also have been more accurately titled “Sharpe Gets Really P.O.’ed,” since that’s more or less the theme. It’s a boring period in the French siege of Lisbon, so Sharpe’s light company is detailed to escort a party sent to destroy a pontoon bridge near Cadiz, down in the corner of Spain. Things go wrong and the captain and five of his men are carried downstream on a runaway section of the bridge, have to flee farther south to avoid capture, and end up in blockaded Cadiz itself. Sharpe’s more fundamental talents are called on to help the governor recover some incriminating love letters, but Cornwell kind of leaves that section of the story hanging. Sharpe then takes his squad off to get involved in the Battle of Barrosa, just down the peninsula from town, in what he admits is not his fight. But the author wants to tell the story of Sir Thomas Graham, a real-life hero who humiliated the French with less than half as many troops, so there we are. The battle itself is described with Cornwell’s usual brio and close attention to important detail, but the book wouldn’t have been long enough with just that — hence the blackmail conspiracy. I’m continually amazed that the French — especially Napoleon, who was far from stupid in military matters — never caught on that arraying their battalions in column instead of widespread lines prevented most of their troops from being able to fight at the same time. Had they adopted the British infantry line, to which they lost battle after battle, the French would probably have taken and held all of Europe. Anyway, we never do find out what happened to Lieut. Bullen, except that he’s apparently a POW at the end of the book. And I also have doubts that a brigadier would have been put in charge of such a small party on such a relatively minor errand. (4/01/09)

Published on 20 November 2009 at 9:59 am  Leave a Comment  

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