Bringing history to life in an entertaining fashion is no simple task, but it is an endeavor that Bernard Cornwell undertakes in Sharpe's Tiger
. Published in 1997 this novel is chronologically the first of 24 stories that make up the Sharpe's series, it introduces us to the main character Richard Sharpe and the beginning of his military career in the British Army. Immediately Bernard Cornwell attempts to place you amidst the sites, smells and emotions of Mysore, India in the year 1799. Beyond the obvious purpose of character development, Bernard Cornwell uses this vessel to capture the regional tension of the period from many points of view, including the private soldiers, officers, civilians and leaders of the several factions involved. Will this novel thrust you headlong into an exciting piece of history with all its grit, sorrow and heroism or will it leave the canvass with only a rudimentary sketch?
Imagining yourself in the sweltering landscape of India in 1799 by Private Sharpe's side is an easy task thanks to the illustrative prose chosen by Bernard Cornwell. In no way was I surprised to learn that he had actually visited the area and surveyed the countryside. Descriptive ability is combined with advanced vocabulary in this tale to help you savor every nuance of the story without making you feel like the author is showing off his new thesaurus. From an academic perspective this book grew not only my vocabulary but also my interest in Napoleonic era history. So from a purely technical standpoint this story is handled with perfection, it immerses you, identifies you with the characters and flows with style.
At the outset of the novel a dissertation on rats with wings sets the tone that life was cheap in India during 1799. Cruelty is nothing new to this world as even the most casual glance at history would make obvious. There are several moments when savagery spills out upon the pages of this novel in ways that leave your stomach turning, which for at least a moment had me wondering how could the authors imagination be so darkly warped. More disturbing than some twisted imagination is the fact that the atrocities depicted on these pages are gathered directly from historical accounts. When looking at the work as a whole it appears these moments of barbarism are not merely thrown in for shock value but are instead woven into the story for the sake of accuracy. Interestingly enough it is not just the enemy who deal out these horrors which leads to many interesting developments in the story line not to mention a sense of honest treatment by the author. Man's inhumanity to man is hardly a new topic but one aptly handled by Bernard Cornwell.
Understanding why individual soldiers and nations go to battle is a subject that has many explanations and justifications, but in Sharpe's Tiger, it is distilled into a few simple truths. Motivations of a more honorable nature for the private soldier might be loyalty to the man standing in the rank next to him, a sense of duty to the flag or preserving the homeland. Raping and pillaging the conquered lands illustrate the ignoble provocations for enlistment in the armies of the time period. Of a more elementary nature is the driving force that moves nations to war according to the story, trade. Regardless of the impetus for going to war the author does a superb job of using different characters to explore these motivations.
Aside from these darker themes in the story are several relationships which to me seemed genuine and useful to the story development. Varying themes present themselves in these relationships such as romance, politics, lust, hatred, and friendship. Without giving away any details there is one relationship that drew me entirely into the story, that between Lt. Lawford and Private Sharpe. I'll say no more on the matter but if for no other reason the bond they share makes this story worth reading.
To answer the introductory question in my humble opinion Bernard Cornwell does in fact throw you into history that feels alive in Sharpe's Tiger by creating a must read book that is nearly impossible to put down and leaves you thirsting for the next in the series.