Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe series


Last updated 11/7/2023 at 1:01pm

Bernard Cornwell has a very interesting life story that got him to the point of writing several fictional series. He was born in England in 1944 and adopted when he was six weeks old. His new parents were members of a strict fundamentalist sect called the Peculiar People, who forbade just about everything kids and young adults were interested in. Cornwell definitely expressed his rebellion toward all those restrictions when he started to write historical novels about war, realistic wartime relationships, and fighting.

He tried to enlist in the service several times, but was denied entry due to poor eyesight. After getting his college degree, he started working for the British Broadcasting Company, but fell in love with an American and moved to the U.S. around 1980. After the move, it took a while for him to get his green card, so he spent the waiting time by beginning his series about a fictional 19th-century military hero, Richard Sharpe. This was a lucky break for the millions of readers who like military fiction. Cornwell has written more than 20 novels featuring Sharpe, plus several other fictional series. A new book in the Sharpe series is coming out next year.

I chose “Sharpe’s Tiger” to read for this review, since it was the first of the Sharpe series (in historical order, not in the order it was written). Sharpe is a good soldier and leader. He reminds me of Horatio Hornblower, but he’s definitely hardcore compared to Horatio — plus he’s Army, not Navy. I’ll do a review on C. S. Forester soon — the Hornblower series is fantastic.

Back to Sharpe. This first book places Sharpe as a private in the British Army, stationed in India in 1799. He’s bored with the time spent doing nothing, he wants to fight, and he has one of the worst sergeants in the army over him. I’m sure most military people out there in the U.S. (and beyond) have probably lived through similar times in the military when you wonder, “What the heck was I thinking when I joined up?” Sharpe wonders that a lot, and privately thinks about how he can get out and go make a life in the civilian world.

Through circumstances beyond his control, Sharpe ends up being sent on a nearly impossible mission to free captured Colonel McCandless. His objective is to free the colonel, hopefully without getting killed by the enemy or his own military. Other than the military leaders who give the assignment to Sharpe, and his sidekick, rookie lieutenant William Lawford, everyone else thinks Sharpe and Lawford have deserted. The story is great, and made even better by knowing it’s based on real battles and history. It is graphic and disturbing in parts, but any military person will tell you that disturbing things happen in real life as well as fiction.

Cornwell has a good personal sense of humor. In one of his past interviews with The Guardian he said, “I look back on it and I think this was insane. One, moving to America without a job, and two, throwing myself on the mercy of writing a novel. But here I am 40 years later.” I wish he would write a book starting from when he was born, and on to this day. The way he found his birth father and mother, the difference it made in his life and the history of both, the addition of more “real” history to his books.

I like the way he puts it: “Historical fiction is a gateway to real history.”


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