In the beginning of the book, our hero sets sail for England after five months of service in India. The plot revolves around a disguised diplomat, a marauding French warship, and an improbable love affair with a comely English aristocrat. But make no mistake, the real draw here is combat. The battle scenes crackle with energy, and we can practically feel the chop of the waves and smell the reek of gunpowder. (We can also smell 600 unwashed men in close quarters with rats, sewage, and bilge rot, but that's another matter entirely.) The last hundred pages fly by at a furious clip, cannons pounding and cutlasses hacking, as Cornwell re-creates the naval battle of Trafalgar.
These days, of course, we know that war is bloody and brutal, not honorable or fair. We like even our most appealing warriors to have some passing acquaintance with their dark side, and Sharpe does take a decidedly antiheroic stance on the experience of hand-to-hand combat:
He was ashamed when he remembered the joy of it, but there was a joy there. It was the happiness of being released to the slaughter, of having every bond of civilization removed. It was also what Richard Sharpe was good at. It was why he wore an officer's sash instead of a private's belt, because in almost every battle the moment came when the disciplined ranks dissolved and a man simply had to claw and scratch and kill like a beast.