Top critical review
Sharpe Learns to Look Out for Himself at Sea
on 11 December 2008
In chronological order, Sharpe's Trafalgar is the fourth book in the series. You could also think of it as an out-of-sequence book because it has little to do with the stories about Richard Sharpe as a soldier. In fact, unless you want to read a little about what it was like to be at the Battle of Trafalgar, you could skip this book and not miss anything important in the way of character development. Unlike the India books where Sharpe was continually fighting off deadly threats to his life, Sharpe is more concerned here with sneaking around with a married woman, a remote cousin of Sir Arthur Wellesley, Lady Grace Hale.
The Napoleonic Wars were fought in Europe. Naturally, Sharpe has to leave India if he is to appear to save the day in all of those amazing battles on the continent. Naturally, he's going to pass by Trafalgar. Why not write a book about the battle and have Sharpe stumble into it? That's clear the thought process behind this book.
As a result, you end up with a lot of plot "development" that is sort of filler before the main battle. Having never studied the sea battle, I found that the explanations were interesting and the story helped make the technology and strategy easier to understand. Had this been a novella that focused on the last third of this book, I probably would have graded the book as a five-star effort.
The ins and outs of avoiding being swindled by ship chandlers, East India ship captains, and common seamen didn't seem all that interesting to me. The romantic side of the book wasn't too credible to me and didn't add much to my enjoyment of the story. If you think Bernard Cornwell's novels about Sharpe lack enough of a love interest, then you'll probably like this book a lot better than I did.
The writing is quite good in comparing naval battles with the kind of fortress breaching that Sharpe engaged in during the three books in India. I don't recall reading another novel from this era that made those comparisons quite so explicit and interesting.
By contrast, some of the dialogue is particularly bad. In fact, Cornwell makes fun of his own dialogue by putting words into the mouths of characters who don't agree that every ship's captain is a "fine fellow."
The unforgettable part of the book is the characterization of Lord Nelson who led his sailors to such a remarkable victory that day.