I'm reading Sharpe for the first time, chronologically. This is the sixth in the series and covers Sharpe's adventures during the retreat to Corunna, when he finally comes to terms with the Rifles, gets involved with Spanish resistance to the French, and learns a lot about how to be an officer. This is easily the best-written of the 'retrospectives', not surprising since it was written long before the others, being 9th in order of writing. Cornwell is not the only prolific author whose quality suffered a little in his later career. There are several things that make this stand out in comparison to its chronological predecessors. The technical quality of the writing is better - with less use of stock phrases, a more consistent and believable plot, and a better balance between descriptive prose and dialogue. The attention to detail is superb, and the sympathetic treatment of Sharpe's problems with being being an officer makes him a much more rounded character than the cardboard super-hero of the India series, for example. Also, whereas in the previous books Sharpe simply has to look at a woman and she is his, here he has to cope with rejection - which he does like a gentleman. The scene-setting is second to none, Cornwell's painting of Galicia during a particularly savage winter is almost painful to read, and the fight scenes are drawn with more patience and faultless pacing - utterly unlike the frenetic whizz-bang (almost Tom and Jerry) efforts of novels written a decade later.
A very good read, probably worth 5 stars, but I had to leave a bit of leeway for those stories written before this one which are probably even better. I must say I admire the skill with which the author writes these novels to fill gaps in the chronology. It must be a nightmare to do, being consistent with books written several years earlier.