This is the latest book to be publiished in the Richard Sharpe saga: the series of historical novels about a soldier in the early years of the nineteenth century. However, although recently published it actually relates to an early stage in its hero's career, for we find Sharpe as a young sergeant in India, involved in Sir Arthur Wellesley's campaign against the Mahrattas. The centrepiece of the story is the battle of Assaye, in which Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), although enormously outnumbered, defeats the Mahrattas under their European officers, one of whom is a renegade Englishman who commits an act of murderous treachery at the start of the novel.
In the course of the battle Sharpe saves Wellesley's life by fighting off a number of attackers single-handed, an act of heroism which leads to his being promoted from the ranks to ensign. Although this episode is obviously fictional, Cornwell tells us in a postscript that the description of the battle is largely factual and that Wellesley was indeed nearly killed when he found himself alone after his horse was shot from under him; not much is known about this episode so it is not impossible that he was rescued by a British soldier.
There have been a number of historical war novel series set in this period but most have dealt with the Navy. Cornwell's books about the Army have enjoyed a deserved success and I certainly found this one highly readable. There's a huge amount of action and the characters are portrayed convincingly. My main adverse criticism would be of the dialogue. At times this is disconcertingly modern: we encounter phrases like "It was down to the army to do…", for example; and surely no one in 1804 would refer to an Englishman as a Briton. Linguistic anachronisms like these jar on one, and so to does the fact that all the characters without exception, including an Indian and a Frenchwoman (who is explicitly said not to have a good command of English) all speak perfect English on the page.
Such irritations aside, Cornwell succeeds in making you feel the physical horror of war and he is good on the technicalities of battle. I was left feeling I wanted to read more books about Sharpe.