Many people compare the Hornblower books to the Sharpe novels and vice versa. The two series have little in common other than covering similar time periods in British history, one from the naval and the other from the military perspective. As his name suggests, Sharpe is quick-witted and as adaptable as a Swiss army knife. Hornblower is more cerebral and comfortable in his officer's role. Sharpe is initially a fish out of water when leading his men, and he knows it.
If you are like me, you've been reading these books in the order of the events they portray (rather than the order of publication). From that perspective, Sharpe's Rifles is the sixth in chronological order of events.
Since Sharpe was raised to be an ensign by saving the life of Sir Arthur Wellesley as the Battle of Assaye, he's been struggling. The Scottish regiments in India didn't want him because he is English. Posted to the 95th Rifles in England, the officers don't want him because he's not a gentleman born and the men don't respect him for the same reason. But he's seen as valuable in a quartermaster role where he can keep an eye on the tricks that soldiers use to fiddle the stores. Sharpe is a good quartermaster, but he wants to fight instead.
In Sharpe's Rifles, Sharpe comes unexpectedly to command a small group of the 95th Rifles during a disastrous retreat from the victorious French. He decides to take his men to Lisbon to find transport, but the men plan to head north instead. Immediately, Sharpe's authority is challenged and he fights back the only way he knows how . . . with his fists. Into that perilous moment steps a Spanish grandee, Major Blas Vivar, who persuades Sharpe to join forces with his cavalry troops who are carrying a mysterious chest to Santiago de Compostela. What's in the chest? It must be valuable because the French have dispatched a lot of troops to get it.
Trekking in miserable weather over the mountains in winter, Sharpe comes to respect Vivar who helps Sharpe learn how to command. Their alliance is sundered when Sharpe learns that Vivar hasn't been telling the truth about certain things. It doesn't seem to matter when Sharpe learns that the French have taken Santiago de Compostela. There's no point in going there!
Sharpe's life is further upset by running into a family of English Methodists who are trying to convert the "heathen" Catholics to their Protestant faith without much success and demand Sharpe protect them from the French. Sharpe isn't excited about acceding to this demand, but he can't help but be drawn to their young niece who is flirtatious.
Before long, Sharpe is involved in matters that seem more relevant for Don Quixote than for the 95th Rifles as he joins an idealistic crusade to strike a symbolic blow for Spain. From there, it's great fun . . . among the best of the Sharpe novels. Bernard Cornwall has taken a lot of license with history here, and it makes for good story telling.
Fans of Sergeant Harper in the later novels will be thrilled to find out how he became a sergeant in this book.
I suspect this book will be one of your favorites in the series.