Author: Bernard Cornwell
Sharpe’s Regiment could be subtitled Sharpe versus the London Bureaucracy. Most Sharpe books follow a familiar formula, where Sharpe must overcome a plot by the French or French supporters that will involve a battle or two. Along the way Sharpe will best a superior officer who underestimates him because he’s not a gentlemen and have sex with a woman that all the other officers lust after and would otherwise seem out of Sharpe’s social strata. Up until this point, the most that formula has diverged has been in Sharpe’s Trafalgar (where the action took place via a naval battle), and Sharpe’s Prey (which featured Sharpe operating as an intelligence officer in Denmark). In Sharpe’s Regimentthere are echoes of the familiar tropes, but for most of the book it is a very nice departure from the standard Sharpe setting that still feels true to the characters.
After Wellington’s successful campaign in Spain, the French forces have been driven out of the country and it appears there will be some downtime in the action. With no need for Richard Sharpe’s expertise on the battlefield, Sharpe is dispatched back to England to find the missing reinforcements owed to the South Essex. From my memory, this is only the third return to his homeland through 17 books in the series (once to get married, another trip was to his old boy’s home that he grew up in), but those were both minor scenes in their respective stories. Aside from a prologue and epilogue, the rest of the story is spent in England in a very different setting than the usual battlefield. Sharpe gets to have dinner with a prince, be honored at a theater, and receive countless other accolades as a hero returning to his native land.
The tension in the book comes from the question of where the South Essex reinforcements are located? According to some in the military, they are merely a “paper army,” existing only as a theoretical allotment in bookkeeping. Sharpe doesn’t buy it, and to investigate he, Harper and one other officer go and enlist under fake names and see where the trail leads. The cast of characters in this book is mostly new faces, with several inexperienced recruits falling into fun archetypes (the educated one, the one with the dog, the complainer, etc.) and evil officers in the British ranks.
Some of the best moments in the book come from the unique position of Sharpe and Harper needing to be deserters, or needing to shoot back in a situation where they don’t want to kill British soldiers. It’s easy to predict the comeuppance that will occur once their true identities are revealed but it doesn’t diminish the fun of seeing Sharpe and Harper gloat over those that wronged them. Less successful are Sharpe’s romantic exploits, which include a woman seemingly created solely to facilitate the drama, and the return of one of Sharpe’s dream girls (Jane) who was not particularly memorable in her first appearance. Cornwell struggles to make her interesting, even writing how Sharpe senses the repartee that will be forthcoming between Jane and Harper, while not delivering any actual memorable moments. Also, it feels as though Cornwell felt obligated to deliver one large battle which seemed out of place with the rest of story. Overall though, this was not only the most unique book in the series thus far, but a fun adventure that felt true to the characters.