This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell. It’s a momentous landmark to reach, not least because alongside all Cornwell’s other outstanding books, Sharpe is still going strong. In the years since his first book was released, Cornwell has ranged far afield – from the American Civil War to the Dark Ages, from Arthurian legend to Regency London. Despite the dramatic changes in scenery and time period, his unerring eye and ability to tell a fantastic story has never flagged. Few writers can ever hope to reach the dizzy heights of Cornwell’s skill or success. I raise my glass to him, the foremost author of historical fiction in the last 30 years. May his forthcoming book, Death of Kings, hit No. 1 in the bestseller charts the day it comes out!
I cannot remember the exact year that I first picked up a Sharpe novel, but it was definitely no later than 1984. Like most people who enjoy historical fiction, I was hooked from the first page. From then on, I devoured each Sharpe book as it was published. I loved the sense of period, the story told from the point of view of a (relative) low-ranker rather than a general, and the thrill of battle that was never further than a musket ball away. While I haven’t read many of his stand alone stories, I loved his Starbuck Chronicles. His Arthur books were fantastic, and I also greatly enjoyed the Grail Quest trilogy – added to recently of course by the number one bestseller Azincourt. I haven’t yet started on the Saxon Stories; that is mainly down to the fact that I have almost no time to read now that I write for a living. However, I will soon be proud possession of a copy of Death of Kings. Bernard Cornwell will be appearing at History in the Court next week, and I’ll (hopefully) get to meet him. Right. Now off to buy the first five books of the Saxon Stories. Can’t have the last book in a series without having the rest.
Cornwell hasn’t just been an author whose books I loved. He also unknowingly helped to spur me on towards my goal of becoming a writer. In 2001, I had been working as a vet for 9 years. I’d had a bellyful of it too – not least because of the things I had seen while working on the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak. Naїvely deciding that I would become a bestselling author of Roman military fiction, I marched into the Waterstone’s branch in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was working at the time. Along with a large number of texts on Rome and its armies, I bought the first three Sharpe books. These I was to use as inspiration and teaching manuals, and because I wanted to create a ‘Roman Sharpe’. I have no idea if I succeeded in emulating Sharpe in any way, but the note that I found at the beginning of Sharpe’s Eagle was truly inspiring. As far as I remember, it hadn’t been in the copy I’d read in the 1980s.
It wasn’t a long piece. Cornwell described how in the early days of his marriage, he and his wife Judy were living in the USA. He couldn’t get a Green Card to work, and Judy asked him what he was going to do. He announced that he was going to write a book. Some time later, Sharpe’s Eagle was published, and the rest as they say, is history. I stood there in that shop – a vet who didn’t want to be a vet – and thought, ‘I can do that.’ And I did.
So here’s a huge, heartfelt thank you to Bernard Cornwell for being a first-class author, and for helping to light the way!