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Gratuitous, turgid fare, or another great adventure?
on 23 April 2013
One of the main problems in writing a series of books about the same character is the tendency to drop into cliched, almost automated, prose. I'm not talking about catchphrases uttered by the hero, they can become tiresome, but are acceptable. No, my objection is to essentially the same descriptive text or phrases appearing in book after book. The really great authors, like Doyle with Holmes, avoid this as a simple matter of technique, but Cornwell sometimes slips into such sloppy writing in his later Sharpe novels. In this book, he also seems to make a point of repeating every little historical nugget he has delighted us with in the past - to the extent that they become little more than padding. New readers will not mind this, of course, but I am sure that the majority of Sharpe readers have read several of the novels before, and don't need reminding in great detail, for example, that a ball for a rifle needs a leather wad round it to grip the rifling, otherwise ..... So, that explains the 'turgid' in the title.
What about 'gratuitous'? War is necessarily violent, often brutal - but the great writers don't fall into the trap of describing this in infinite detail - rightly seeing that it is part of their skill to leave something to the imagination of the reader - and to provide appropriate stimuli for that. Cornwell has verged on gratuitous in many previous novels, but has always managed to avoid the abyss - with considerable skill. Here, all to often, he simply doesn't bother. The battle scenes tell it like it is, in such detail that the tales of appalling maiming and death rapidly become boring. To make sure that you get the message that this author is truly hard-edged, he throws in a gigantic sadistic killer as well - relating in graphic detail how he literally beats a much smaller man to pulp.
On the other side of the scales, the account of the defence of Lisbon is well told and interesting, and the adventure woven around it is exciting enough. Even there, though, there are problems. The apparent personality change in the hitherto decent, honourable, and likeable Lawford is a little hard to swallow. And pitting Sharpe against yet another half-witted, arrogant, cowardly, but well-connected, officer is possibly one time too many. To an extent, the novel is redeemed by the excellent mini-battle at the end, it is tense, nail-biting stuff - as good a bit of action writing as any the author has created - and I can't tell you how it ends. You might guess, though!
So, how does this novel balance out? The fact that I give it 3 stars tells it all. Is it worth reading? - yes but, occasionally, it's a near run thing!