Sharpe’s Skirmish: Richard Sharpe and the Defense of the Tormes, August 1812
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Release Date: 1999
No matter how thrilling a Richard Sharpe adventure is, without a note regarding the historical accuracy of the events described at the conclusion it’s a bit of a letdown. Fourteen books into the series, with several more to go, it’s clear that Sharpe is going to survive each adventure and find a way to single handed turn the tides for the British in battle. What keeps these stories from being repetitive is plugging that formula into different historical events and making a cool hybrid of education and entertainment. That’s all a roundabout way of saying that while this short story was very exciting and entertaining it lacked the gravity of a more historical entry in the series.
Taking place almost immediately following the events of “Sharpe’s Sword,” here Richard is in charge of a Spanish fort on a crucial supply chain while the French in the area are all assumed to be retreating. He is there because he was shot in the previous book and is recovering in what is assumed to be a low stakes, hard to screw up position. Unbeknownst to British however, there is actually a sizable French force in the area with their sights set on this fort. Something happens that makes Sharpe suspect that he will be attacked, which becomes the dilemma of whether he should request more troops to be safe and possibly look paranoid or not request troops and possibly be undermanned during an attack. As an officer elevated through the ranks Sharpe must always be right or risk losing all he has gained thus far.
In addition to Richard Sharpe, long time readers will be pleased by the involvement of Sgt. Harper and Teresa in this book, as both play pivotal roles in the mission. There is also a soldier who remembers Sharpe from Gawilghur (which was detailed in “Sharpe’s Fortress”), so those following along chronologically get some nice literary Easter eggs. The two best parts of this story both involve horses. First, Cornwell does an excellent job describing the condition of the French army and their animals, all of whom have been retreating for miles and are in poor shape for battle. These sorts of details are where Cornwell really shines, bringing realism to stories that could so easily devolve into mindless action. **Slight spoiler for the ending** The climax also involves the horses, and several hundred bottles of wine that were not disposed of properly. Although with so few pages to plant seeds for plot twists, “Sharpe’s Skirmish” ends with a clever means for the British to thwart the charging enemy.