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Title: Sharpe’s Tiger
Series: Sharpe #1
Authors: Bernard Cornwell
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Richard Sharpe is a private in the 33rd Regiment of Foot in the British army. The British invade Mysore and advance on the Tippoo Sultan’s capital city of Seringapatam. Sharpe is contemplating desertion with his paramour, half-caste army widow Mary Bickerstaff, due to his sadistic company sergeant, Obadiah Hakeswill. Hakeswill lusts after Mary, so he provokes Sharpe into hitting him before witnesses, company commander Captain Morris and Ensign Hicks. Sharpe is court-martialled; Lieutenant William Lawford, who is supposed to act as his defender, is absent and Sharpe is given the virtual death sentence of 2,000 lashes. However, the regiment’s commander, Colonel Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), halts the punishment at just over 200 lashes. Lawford has been offered an extremely dangerous mission and has requested Sharpe. Sharpe agrees to go along if he is made a sergeant if they are successful.
Lawford and Sharpe pose as deserters to try to rescue Colonel Hector McCandless, Lawford’s uncle and chief of the British East India Company’s intelligence service. Sharpe’s flogging inadvertently makes their cover story more plausible. Sharpe quickly takes charge and brings Mary along, to protect her from Hakeswill and because she speaks several of the native languages. They are soon captured by scouts from the Tippoo’s army and taken to Seringapatam where they meet Colonel Gudin, a French military adviser to the Tippoo. During their interrogation, the Tippoo enters and orders them to load muskets. He then orders Sharpe to shoot a British prisoner, Colonel McCandless; he does, having noticed that the “gunpowder” he has been given is fake. The musket does not fire. After covertly telling McCandless that he is a spy, he is told by McCandless that the British must not attack the seemingly weakest portion of the city walls. (It is later revealed that the Tippoo has had mines buried there to blow up the British when they enter the trap.)
Lawford and Sharpe join Gudin’s troops, whilst Mary is sent to work as a servant in the household of one of the Tippoo’s generals, Appah Rao, a Hindu who, unknown to the Muslim Tippoo, is considering switching sides. As they search for their contact, a merchant who can pass along the vital warning to the besieging British forces. Gudin tests the pair further, giving them rifled fowling guns (Sharpe’s first exposure to a rifled weapon instead of a smoothbore musket). Sharpe’s shot is slightly high, but Lawford, to his mortification, ends up hitting a British scout.
As a further test, Sharpe helps defend a Mysore encampment which is attacked by the British. During the attack, Sharpe encounters Hakeswill and tries to kill him, but is stopped by Gudin, who wants prisoners. Back in Seringapatam, Hakeswill spots Lawford in the crowd, but does not betray him (yet). Sharpe is rewarded for his actions by the Tippoo and is allowed to visit Mary. He finds that she is attracted to one of Appah Rao’s men, Kunwar Singh, news which Sharpe takes in good grace. Meanwhile, the Tippoo orders the prisoners executed by his personal bodyguard, the fearsome Jettis, but spares Hakeswill when the sergeant betrays Lawford and Sharpe. The two are captured and Sharpe is tortured until Lawford reveals their mission. Gudin then tells them that the spy they sought in the city had been killed weeks before and fed to the Tippoo’s pet tigers. They are then imprisoned with McCandless and Hakeswill. During their imprisonment, Lawford teaches Sharpe to read and write to make him a more effective sergeant.
After days of bombardment, the British finally breach the wall and prepare to attack. With the assault imminent, Appah Rao orders Kunwar Singh to free McCandless, whilst the Tippoo orders Sharpe, Lawford and McCandless executed as a sacrifice to ensure his victory. Mary accompanies Singh and helps Sharpe escape. Sharpe, accompanied by Lawford, then sets the mine off prematurely. As a result, many of the Tippoo’s best soldiers are killed or stunned, and the British enter the breach in the walls. Rao decides to abandon the Tippoo and withdraws his men. Sharpe returns to Hakeswill and throws him to the Tippoo’s tigers, hoping they will eat the sergeant (though they inexplicably ignore him). Sharpe then encounters the Tippoo, who is trying to flee the city, kills him and loots his corpse.
The British capture the city and restore the Hindu rajah to the throne, as a British puppet ruler. Sharpe carefully takes no credit for killing the Tippoo to avoid having to surrender the jewels he looted.
I’ve got two gripes with this book then I’ll go into what I did like. One, this is chronologically the first book but not the first published book. I am a fan of reading a series in order of publication because of the layers involved that authors build up over time. Who knows what Cornwell revealed to me in this book that was a mystery in the earlier published books? Of course, now that I started out chronologically, I’ll be sticking to it. So poo to that! Second, Sharpe is an anti-hero asshole, at best. He’s the protagonist but by no means a hero. If he stays that way, we’ll have to see how many books I get through before giving up on this.
What I did like though, far outweighs those two things, at least for now. The writing. Just like any other hobby, once you’ve passed a certain level you begin to recognize when something is inherently correct and done well. That doesn’t mean you’ll always like it but you’re pigheaded to deny the craftsmanship behind it. Cornwell can write well and it shows. Each character is a “real” person in terms of personality and nobody is a cardboard cutout. When a book makes me see the events and not just “shown”, that also shows wordsmith skills.
This is “historical” fiction and while I’ve anecdotally heard that Cornwell is pretty good about keeping things faithful, that little word “fiction” makes that distinction pointless to me. What that practically means is that you won’t be hearing me write things like “Well, because of what I read by Cornwell, the blah, blah, blabbity blah, reasons, reasons, blah blah blah”. Ever. If Cornwell was a historian, he’d be writing dry, boring and dusty tomes (even though Matt might disagree with my assessment of most history books 😀 ), not adventure novels.