Book Report: Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell (2002)

Book coverAh, gentle reader, of course I did not have to rely on All Quiet on the Western Front for the 2024 Winter Reading Challenge Historical Fiction Outside the U.S. category. After all, I have a bunch of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels (and a couple of one offs) and a stack of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series, and I know where they are–on the outermost ranks of the to-read shelves in the hall. So why not grab one of those? Certainly better than a Bridgerton tie-in that librarians might favor.

At any rate, I bought most of these paperbacks at a garage sale in South City right after we moved to Old Trees and before we had our first son. It was only a couple of months, late spring and early summer, but the world was awash with possibilities–I was an executive working downtown, getting ready to grow a family, and I had actually moved to Old Trees. I read Sharpe’s Tiger and Sharpe’s Triumph the next year, but not another Sharpe book since then (fifteen years ago!). I also read non-Sharpe novels Stonehenge and Wildtrack the same year, but after we moved to Nogglestead. And given how much I enjoyed this book, my underwhelmed response to the latter put me off on the Sharpe books, and that’s a shame.

The events of the book take place after Sharpe’s adventures in India (Sharpe’s Tiger, Sharpe’s Triumph, and Sharpe’s Fortress which I have not read). Sharpe is headed to England to join a regiment there. He has booked passage on an Indian cargo ship and has bought furniture and provisions for the trip, but the right before the trip, the warehouse storing his provisions “burns down.” The book begins with Sharpe, in disguise, trying to infiltrate the estate of the merchant’s cousin after receiving a tip that the merchant did not actually die in the fire–and that the “fire” was part of a scam to sell the same goods to other travelers. He recognizes the merchant among his cousin’s entourage, but before he can make a move, a British capitan and some marines appear seeking recompense for the scam perpetrated on them. Although the captain and the marines are handled by the cousin’s guards, Sharpe makes a successful roll to backstab gets the drop on the merchant and gets recompense for his scam, for the captain’s scam, and makes friends with the captain.

When he goes to sea, he finds an old adversary on board posing as a German duke and a pompous British politician with a beautiful wife with whom Sharpe falls in love. While at sea, the merchant ship is captured by a French privateer, but Sharpe manages to help recapture the ship with the help of the captain’s ship. And Sharpe finds himself on the captain’s fast ship hunting for the Revenant, which is not the large bear that almost eats Leonardo di Caprio but instead is a large French ship. Instead of Sharpe’s Trafalgar, Cornwell could have called it Sharpe’s O’Brian Book.

So most of the action takes place at sea and doesn’t involve much, mostly Sharpe wooing the woman and dealing with her husband’s secretary who tries to blackmail him. It has a lot of detail about ship’s operations along with some drilling because just as the ship is about to catch the Revenant it is summoned to participate in the Battle of Trafalgar. And, as luck would have it, they get to battle the Revenant up close and personal.

Sharpe remains a bit of an anti-hero, although he does seem to be trending a little more traditionally heroic in this book. In researching this book, I discovered that Cornwell did not write the books in chronological order. He published the eighth book in the chronological history in 1981 and only sixteen years later did he publish Sharpe’s Tiger. This book came out in 2000 (my edition is a later paperback edition), so it was twenty years since Cornwell’s first Sharpe novel. Interesting, and now I’ll have to look to see how they hang together when I get to the actual start of the series in publication order.

As I mentioned, I enjoyed the book and don’t know why I’ve waited so long to get back to it. I was tempted to blow off the rest of the Winter Reading Challenge–I have more than enough for a mug now–and jump back into it, but I probably will try to get as many of the fifteen categories as I can before hitting this series again. It looks like the series has 26 books in it so far, mostly dealing with the the war against Napoleon. I don’t have that many (yet), but the books are written to be individual novels and not relying on too much knowing what happened immediately preceding the book you have in hand. Which is good, as I’ve already skipped gaps (both in the series and in a decade and a half of real time) with no great loss of reading pleasure.

The O’Brian books will likely have to wait, though.

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6 thoughts on “Book Report: Sharpe’s Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell (2002)

  1. I read the first clutch of Sharpe books by themselves, then the others as they appeared for awhile. They became repetitive, and I disliked some of Cornwell’s plot choices because they didn’t make any sense except that it let him write a book. So I left some of Sharpe’s adventures unknown.

  2. So maybe my only reading a couple every decade is a good strategy to keep them fresh.

    I will probably know more later in the year.

    As this one was set aboard a ship, though, it would probably have remained novel compared to the rest whenever I read it.

    I have only read one O’Brian novel; I fear that having a bunch of naval novels would get repetitive more quickly.

  3. I read the O’Brian’s straight through, but I had other books going on in-between. I’ve since read the series two or three times. On an O’Brian facebook page, these readings are called “circumnavigations.”

    The one thing I remember from Sharpe’s Trafalgar was when he realized that the ship he was on carried vastly greater artillery than he’d ever seen in a battle.

  4. I have only read the first Aubrey/Marutin book (in 2009) and found it too slowly paced for my tastes. Do they pick up?

  5. The consensus seems to be that they do in the third book. While some sections zip along, in general they are not written to be always fast.

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