Review: Sharpe’s Eagle

Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell

The reason I picked up Sharpe’s Eagle is Sean Bean (perhaps better known as “Ubiquitous Bad Guy” as the RiffTrax gang affectionately call him). My introduction to Bean naturally came with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, but I’ve also enjoyed his work in National Treasure (shut up that was a good movie) and, of course, Game of Thrones. But Bean rose to fame by starring in a television series adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. After watching one episode (each episode is essentially a movie), I decided it was time to get acquainted with what I’ve been calling “the Napoleonic James Bond” for a while.

Sharpe’s Eagle follows Lieutenant Richard Sharpe, a soldier in the British army during the Napoleonic Wars, during his time stationed in Portugal. Not a gentleman by any stretch of the imagination, Sharpe is one of the few men who has earned every single one of his promotions and has earned the trust and respect of his small band of Riflemen. When the detached Riflemen are attached to the newly arrived South Essex Regiment, led by the arrogant and completely inexperienced Colonel Simmerson, who purchased his commission. When Simmerson loses the regiment’s colors in a striking piece of idiocy and pins the blame on the newly minted Captain Sharpe, Sharpe must think of a way to win back the regiment’s honor—by
stealing one of the French Eagles, personally presented to each French Regiment by Napoleon himself.

Sharpe’s Eagle is a rollicking good action-adventure novel; there’s plenty of battles depicted with, surprisingly, little romanticization (Sharpe’s friends get killed at a reasonable rate), the time-tested conflict of the self-made man against the system, and wit. I was pleased to see Cornwell accentuate Sharpe’s alienation from mainstream British society with his Irish best friend Patrick Harper, who puts off dealing with the conflict inherent in fighting for the country that oppresses your own. He also gets my favorite line from the novel; as he surveys the pretty much useless South Essex soldiers, he remarks, “Send this Battalion to Ireland, sir. We’d be a free country in two weeks!” (27). You can definitely see why these novels (or, at least, what I can extrapolate from this novel) lend themselves to television adaptations. However, there are some problems that keep it from being all it can be.

Sharpe is initially presented as a soldier’s soldier, dark and grim. (I, of course, could only see a young Sean Bean. What a burden.) He’s practical, as well as a damn fine soldier with his own code of honor. But the distressingly flat romance subplot shows something much darker and much more twisted in him; when his lover Josefina is raped, she asks him to kill the two men who did it—two British soldiers who serve alongside Sharpe. Sharpe does so, but the way he dispatches the first man is grisly. Not because of the violence, but because Sharpe is wholly unaffected by it, lightly rifling his pockets and joking to Harper about it. For a career soldier, it felt wholly out of place and made Sharpe feel like more of a sociopath than anything else. And the romance was distressing soulless; Sharpe sees Josefina, wants to have sex with her, and that’s that. I did like that he respected her need, as a fugitive wife of a philandering idiot, to find someone that could provide for her, but there didn’t seem to be any human connection between the two of them at all. Perhaps it’s because I already know and like Teresa, Sharpe’s first wife, but I think it’s mostly because she (and the whole romance) is underdeveloped and feels tacked on.

On top of that, Cornwell’s chronology is just, well, odd. This applies to the grammar and the actual structure of the novel, rather than the time period—as far as I can tell, Cornwell is remarkably faithful. But the otherwise straight-forward, unadorned, and, occasionally, repetitive prose often goes in circles; for instance, Sharpe’s last meeting with Josefina is retold in flashback. And he does this a lot. I feel that an exciting narrative such as this should be more or less straight-forward in its structure; these flashbacks break up the pace and, more importantly, the tension. While I’m still glad to be acquainted with Sharpe, I’m not so sure I like book!Sharpe or the narrative framework he operates in. I might just stick to the television adaptations…unless Cornwell remarkably improves later in the series.

Bottom line: Sharpe’s Eagle is a rollicking action-adventure novel, unfortunately hampering by a circular and repetitive narrative style, a tacked on and underdeveloped romance, and the more disturbing implications of the hero’s apparent sociopathic tendencies. I hope Cornwell improves in the later novels, but I won’t be holding my breath.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Cornwell, Bernard. Sharpe’s Eagle. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print.

5 thoughts on “Review: Sharpe’s Eagle

  1. I’ve read a lot of Cornwell’s novels and in general I’m a fan. However, I’ve skipped this series; for some reason it never appealed to me. Violence is something he doesn’t shy away from so I’m not surprised to hear that was the case here. If there’s blood to be shed, he tends to do it in a grisly way.

  2. Eh, I find Cornwell’s prose remarkably flat, and can never get into his books no matter how many friends recommend them to me. I agree that the Sharpe TV series is quite excellent for the most part, mostly because you get to watch Sean Bean growling his way through the whole thing, and Bean just makes any movie he’s in so much better.

  3. I am probably never going to read these books, but I shall definitely watch the show. I am so, so, so fond of Sean Bean. I think he’s an excellent actor and is capable of much more than what he’s generally given in films he’s been in. (Like, Troy? He was waaaaay the best thing about Troy, and my strongest reaction to the movie was that they should make an Odyssey movie and Sean Bean could be the star of it. Or a miniseries. I would watch infinity episodes of Sean Bean as Odysseus.) Why is he not more famous? I am heartbroken that he won’t be in my life each week now that Game of Thrones has (ahem) just about finished its season. And whatnot.

  4. I’ve never really got into Sharpe – or indeed Cornwell’s novels. I started Harlequin (whose protagonist is an English archer) with high hopes, but then it got tedious and repetitive. Cornwell doesn’t, I think, do women very well. His historical knowledge is extensive and he does period setting very well, but his characters aren’t very sympathetic.

  5. When I read them last year, I read them in chronological order rather than in the order Cornwell wrote them in. It to me made for a very well realized characterization of Sharpe. I don’t think him calmly riffling through the dead man’s pockets was sociopathic so much as prudent. The Sharpe series is roughly inspired by the novella “Rifleman Dodd” by C.S. Forrester (Dodd actually makes a cameo in one of the Sharpe’s books, the cameo leading into the story as presented by Forrester) Another thing to consider is, Bean wasn’t the original choice for the TV series, He got the job after Paul Mcgann was injured and was unable to do it, the popularity of the TV series lead to Cornwell having to remedy Sharpe’s accent and appearance in later books to more closely match Sean Bean.

    On the other hand, beyond the Sharpe’s books.. I can’t say that I really enjoy Bernard Cornwell as a writer. I didn’t enjoy the three Arthur books, or the first of the Saxon tales books. His characters in those books just aren’t particularly appealing in the same way that Richard and Patrick are.

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