I started reading the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell in the mid to late 1990s. I can place that because many of the novels I bought have ‘TV tie-in’ picture covers, showing Sean Bean in the TV series adaptation, and it ran from 1993 to 1997. For the complete picture of Sharpe on the box, two additional movies have been made (Sharpe’s Challenge in 2006 and Sharpe’s Peril in 2008).
The series, for the uninitiated, is about a British rifleman in the Napoleonic wars. Originally an orphan, he joins the army as a private wearing the British red coat of the era (a story that gets woven into the Sharpe mythology in more detail later on in the book series), becomes a rifleman (taking on the green jacket of that corps), and then slowly but surely starts working his way up the ranks, despite his background, lack of formal education, and the fact he’s not a ‘gentleman’. A guttersnipe made good.
Prior to Sharpe’s Assassin, Bernard Cornwell last wrote a Sharpe novel in 2007. Of course, unlike some authors, this lengthy spell isn’t because he simply wasn’t writing. Cornwell has actually written a bunch of very successful series outside of Sharpe for decades – notably the ‘Saxon Stories’ featuring the character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and turned into an excellent TV series, The Last Kingdom.
That’s just one example, however. Cornwell has made writing great series – and sometimes forgetting about them for long periods of time – into a real artform. I’m still hoping be returns to his American Civil War ‘Starbuck Chronicles’, however, after four books between 1993 and 1996, there’s been no movement since. Which is a great shame, as that’s an excellent historical series, too.
And so onto Sharpe’s Assassin. This is set in a period we haven’t seen our titular character in very much. In 1990, Cornwell wrote Sharpe’s Waterloo (set in 1815) and in 1992 he wrote Sharpe’s Devil (set in 1820-21). Aside from a short story in 1994, that’s a five-year gap where Sharpe is… well, we don’t know what he’s up to, really. This novel kicks us off with the aftermath of Waterloo. Sharpe and some companions bury Rifleman Daniel Hagman – a nice nod to how popular the character was in the TV series, I think – but then are immediately called into a special mission on behalf of the Duke of Wellington, the man who originally raised Sharpe from the ranks and is in many of the stories.
This mission has a bit of everything as the novel unfurls itself. There’s the taking of a French fort early in the story which is a tough little encounter on its own. But then it’s onto Paris itself with a dual storyline of trying to recover and lock down famous artworks in the Louvre, in addition to the mystery of a plot by a group called La Fraternité to assassinate the Duke of Wellington himself. This leads Sharpe into meeting all sorts of strange characters over the course of the story, and even has a somewhat weird (for a Sharpe novel) sideline with a travelling show of monkeys at one stage.
If I’m honest, Sharpe’s Assassin didn’t feel 100% like the Sharpe novels I remember. But I think that’s to be expected. A lot of the Sharpe canon was written in the 80s and 90s. Cornwell has changed as a writer. He’s certainly become a better writer. So in some ways I’m saying this is better written and a little more intricate than the earlier novels, which makes it feel different – but not in a bad way by any means. And please don’t let me give the impression that this is somehow quite different to the older Sharpe material. It’s not. When Cornwell’s in a fix, he rolls on a bunch of French soldiers to mow down, if I can paraphrase an interview of his I read long ago. Sharpe, the character, is also his usual quick-to-anger, belligerent bastard – but a quick-to-anger, belligerent bastard you want on your side.