Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Swords of a Thousand Men

I always looked a bit askance at the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell. For one, it was a long series which tends to bode poorly. For another it reminded me too much of the Casca books or the even worse Rat Bastards books. I once saw books two through ten at the Arlington Goodwill, where any trade paperback costs $1.40. I passed them by. Later I picked up Sharpe's Rifles, the first book for seventy cents, figuring what the hell. How I wish I had bought books two through ten.

Sharpe's Rifles is great. It focuses on a routed unit of British soldiers retreating in the face of resurgent French Army in 1809 Spain. They get caught up in the scheme of a Spanish army officer and get loaded down by some proselytizing Methodists. The writing is crisp and the action is well described. From my (extremely) limited knowledge of the period, the author seems to put great emphasis on historical realism. The class issues in the Army are well illustrated. The main character is an officer promoted from the ranks which means other officers shun him and the troops don't respect him. The bewildering variety of troop types of the era also is a focus. If you prefer movies, the BBC made flicks out of quite a few of these books, with Sean Bean no less.

I know a number of people who were put off by the Patrick O'Brian novels. The dialogue is at times difficult to master. Not only is it loaded with nautical jargon, but it is also loaded with period terms. I know this is a bad habit, but if I run into a word I don't know, I just guess the context and move on. If it is REALLY important, I might look it up. Otherwise I keep going. Eventually, you will get the general sense of most of the words. It would be better, in the grand scheme, to digest each word, but who has the time for that?

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