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Oustanding Post-Napoleonic Sharpe Adventure!
on 28 February 2005
Six years after the end of the Napoleonic wars, ex-Rifleman Richard Sharpe toils on his French wife's farm in Normandy. Times are a little tough, so when the fabulously wealthy wife of a former Spanish comrade asks him to travel to Chile to find her missing husband, he can't refuse the gold that comes with the request. Naturally, Sharpe rounds up the now-rotund and prosperous tavern-keeper Patrick Harper before setting sail for South America. Their vessel is a Spanish one, ferrying a number of patronizing and foppish Spanish officers who are off to fight the Chilean rebels (who are led by the intriguing half-Spanish, half-Irish gentleman Bernardo O'Higgins). These Spaniards decide to take a minor detour to St. Helena to gawk at the imprisoned Napoleon, and of course Sharpe and Harper can't resist the chance to pay their own respects. The ex-emperor is by now rotting away in his dank mansion, with peeling wallpaper, a poor wine-cellar, and a large British garrison to keep him company. Treated like a curiosity in a zoo, he is disdainful of the Spaniards, but is intrigued by Sharpe and Harper, who are clearly fellow warriors. Cornwell has a lot of fun with this section, as the two old soldiers talk shop, honor each other, and Sharpe, with his customary naivite is unwittingly drawn into intrigue.
Eventually, the ship arrives in Chile, where Sharpe is told the man he is seeking, Captain-General Vivar, is actually dead. Of course, Sharpe is suspicious when a body can't be produced, and soon he and Harper have run afoul of the thoroughly evil Spanish Governor-General Bautista. Events entertainingly run their course, and soon the dynamic duo find themselves on the side of the rebels seeking to eject the Spaniards from Chile. They come under the wings of Admiral Cochrane, a Scottish Lord turned rebel seaman, and all around adventurer. Cochrane is a wildly daring and bold leader, a real life figure of such improbability that many readers will want to rush out and read one of the biographies about his exploits (The Audacious Admiral Cochrane by and The Sea Wolf by being two). Once in Cochrane's company, the action ratchets up until the climactic battle at Valdivia, where the ragtag rebel navy crushed the entrenched and more numerous Spanish defenders in an audacious action, heralding an end to Spanish rule. The rout also allows Sharpe to unravel the mystery of what befell Captain-General Vivar, and of course, exact retribution on the nasty Bautista.
This is indubitably a change of pace and setting from the regular Sharpe books, but a welcome one. As always, the military action is well described, there are evil villains, interesting supporting characters, and a heavy dose of vivid personages from history on hand. It's hard to imagine anyone making the nominally drab topic of Chilean independence come alive more vividly than Cornwell does here. There's a lot packed into this one, and Cornwell even manages to raise the specter of one of history's more interesting "what ifs" via an audacious plot. All in all, great fun.
PS. Anyone interested in St. Helena is advised to read Harry Ritchie's excellent travel book, The Last Pink Bits, which has a good section on how the island fares in modern times.