I owe most of my knowledge of Britain’s history to British historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell. My Cornwell adventures began with The Winter King late last year, the first book in Warlord Chronicles. It’s a brilliant retelling of King Arthur’s tales (notwithstanding the fact that the author insists that Arthur might not have been a king). That was when I was utterly clueless about British history, except at times when it coincided with Indian subcontinent’s and history of the Vikings.
It can be argued that Arthur might never have existed, that there is no substantial proof of his existence, so it’s hardly history, and more like a legend. But you do come to know about the invasion of Britain by the Saxons and the legacy of the Romans after the disintegration of the Roman Empire and its subsequent retreat from Britain. Not to mention a lot more other history stuff. The charm of Cornwell’s books is that both history and fiction are woven seamlessly in the prose, and you really do want to believe the Cornwell’s version of history, since it’s so bloody damn good.
Less than a month ago, I began reading the ongoing Saxon Tales series based on the Viking invasion of Britain and this time the Saxons were at the receiving end. Kingdoms fell like sand castles against the Viking onslaught, and it was only Alfred the Great of Wessex, the man who first conceived the idea of ‘England’ as a country instead of sundry provinces put together (at least according to the author, and I have little reason to doubt him), who stood tall before the fearsome Northerners and defeated them again and again with the assistance of his warlord, Uthred – who happens to be the main character and narrator of the series, and who is completely fictional. It was even better than Warlord Chronicles, I thought, if just a little repetitive – the same thing happens over and over again. The Vikings invade, Alfred calls Uthred for help, who sulks, and destroys the invaders all the same. But the narration and characterisation will keep you engrossed. And just like Warlord Chronicles, the history fits quite wonderfully with fiction, and vice-versa.
That was about my relation to Britain’s fascinating past and the bridge between us that is Bernard Cornwell. But this particular Englishman has been enlightening to me not only regarding British history, but with a bit of Indian history too. Sharpe’s Tiger, the book I’m about to review here, is set at the turn of the 19th century, the time when the East India Company was still consolidating its rule and was insidiously acquiring the hitherto independent states to gain control of all the trades and territory. Their juggernaut is checked by Tipu Sultan (called the Tippo Sultan by Cornwell), the ruler of Mysore. I was not much familiar with everything that happened between the decline of the Mughals and the Great Mutiny of 1857, so I began as quite an ignorant reader. But that hardly matters with Cornwell – he does a stellar job in introducing his readers to basic premise and facts. That was how historical fiction was meant to be written. Turns out, the British had faced a battle before against Tipu, and were humiliated by Tipu’s elite infantry. This time, though, they are prepared and don’t want to leave any stone unturned, so to speak.
Our hero, and the hero of the whole series, Sharpe, is a lowly private (the lowest rank of a soldier) and that is good, since I enjoy the stories told from the viewpoints of actual soldiers. Not officers, not commanders, simply ordinary soldiers. That’s one of the reasons Malazan Book of the Fallen ranks so high on my Favourite Fantasy Series list. Most battle descriptions, whether they are fictional or non-fictional, are written by chroniclers accompanying top army officers or other narrators. Thus we tend to miss the real action.
Sharpe is a simple, straightforward soldier and brilliant at his profession, with his considerable height and brawn. But that does not mean he loves soldiering. He doesn’t. He would rather desert the army with the woman he loves – the widow of a deceased officer. Although the lady doesn’t have a lack of courtiers, she would prefer the honest and no-bullshit man that is Sharpe.
A story needs a good villain almost as much as it needs a hero. And in Sharpe’s Tiger, Tipu is not a villain. On the contrary, he is more like a hero, a good, brave military ruler – if a little whimsical – who is driven reluctantly to war by constant refusals toward his overtures of peace by the British. The void is snugly filled by a sadistic and cruel sergeant in the army of the East India Company called Obadiah Hakeswill. Now, this guy really is evil. First of all, he is a bully. He treats those under his command with utter contempt, and even with his bosses, he does not make too many efforts to hide his rancour. Secondly, he is constantly plotting for the downfall of his enemies, and that means pretty much everyone who does not lick his boots. Thirdly, and finally, he has a really annoying line ready whenever he is required to justify his actions: “It says so in the scriptures.” A person would cross every limit if they think that they are justified by an omnipotent and omniscient being.
The primary battle is the Seige of Seringapatam, and battle descriptions are so immersive that you begin to doubt whether the author wasn’t actually present at the site of battle. The action is as intense as the Warlord Chronicles and Saxon Tales, only the weaponry has changed – from swords and shields to blunderbusses and bayonets.
The book is brilliantly written, is paced nicely and has a satisfying denouement. I was impressed with the nuanced characterisation of Tipu’s character, though that’s nothing unusual with Cornwell’s novels. He always takes care not to show his antagonists as cold-blooded monsters, and at the same time he makes sure that the characterisation is consistent with the historical accounts, wherever possible.
This is a great book, and a good way to begin reading Bernard Cornwell, I think. The style is simple (trademark Cornwell) and it might be one of the very few readable historical fiction books based in British India. The next two books in the series continue the adventures of Sharpe in India and I genuinely believe I’m in for a treat.