Sharpe is charged by Wellington himself to travel into enemy territory and retrieve a massive stash of Spanish gold which will not be going to the Spanish government in Cadiz, but will rather be spent on something that will turn the war against the French. So off he trots with the ever-resourceful Lt. Knowles and the South Essex. He meets the religious exploring officer Mjr Kearsey, the Spanish partisans including El Catalico and the soon-to-be-pivotal Teresa Moreno, Polish lancers, the King’s German Legion, the return of Josefina (last seen in Eagle) and eventually blows up the Portuguese fortress city of Almeida – surviving by hiding in a brick oven. Seriously.
According to Cornwell, the last detail actually happened but it was a little too Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for my liking.
Note: In contrast to Sharpe’s Eagle, Gold is by far and away my least favourite Sharpe story – the book is slow in places where it should be faster, has far too many deus ex machina for my taste and comes to a conclusion far too quickly. The TV version has virtually nothing to do with the book, except for the opening scene.
What’s in the Game?
Who are the Characters?: Sharpe and Harper, obviously… however this book does a little more to involve Lt. Knowles to an extent that he must be a central character. The other new character to be central to the story is, of course, Teresa Moreno aka La Aguja aka the Needle. Teresa, unsurprisingly considering how pivotal she is to some of the later stories, gets a lot of action in this story and is clearly written as a kick-ass killer.
What are the Missions?: There is one mission in this story – ‘Return the Gold to Wellington’ – and Sharpe carries this out with dogged determination, up to and including the destruction of an allied town and the death of 500 people in the process. There is also a personal mission of ‘Kill El Catalico‘ but very little else in the way of texture to the story.
The Death of Isaiah Tongue: Rifleman Tongue is one of my favourite Sharpe characters and it’s sad to see him die in this book. Whilst he doesn’t do much in the books he is presented as a complex creature – an alcoholic intellectual with a penchant for religion (I may be conflating the TV version a little here, just as the literary version of Tongue is conflated with Harris on TV.) He is also the character who gives an alternate view of Napoleon, seeing him as an enlightened revolutionary rather than an evil dictator. Of all of the Chosen Men he is the most complex and he is clearly a player character!
Teresa!: Teresa is the quintessential role model for female characters in a standard game of Duty & Honour so it is curious to see her grow in this book. She palpably grows throughout the book, even undertaking sabre training with a German sergeant and has a number of moments where she saves the day. However, predictably, she ends up in bed with Sharpe although you do get the feeling this was her decision as much as his. Teresa disappears off into the mountains again at the end of the book as the implied leader of the partisans. She has a good arc!
Provosts: The book opens with an intervention by the provosts; the British military police. One of the riflemen is accused of stealing a chicken from a deserted village and is sentenced to death by hanging, as per Wellington’s standing orders. Naturally, Sharpe intervenes, but the provosts are a great tool to keep the greater excesses of the players in order if a game turns into murder hobo territory. This is especially pertinent considering…
Shades of Grey Justice: This book underlines, once again, the horrific terror that the French army laid upon the Spanish population. The massacre of Casatejada is detailed and horrific. It is presented as a counterpoint to the torture and execution of French soldiers by the partisans – with two of them being dragged behind wild horses over rocky ground until dead. The underlying message is that the British did not do this sort of thing (although, lets not for one moment suspect that they didn’t – history being written by the victors etc.) and if you want to keep to the spirit of the books, keeping this divide – either by choice or by example – is key.
Behind Enemy Lines: One thing that the book does very well is show just how difficult it is to operate behind enemy lines. The constant threat of French patrols makes movement difficult and the need for someone who can read the territory – the role played by Kearsey and Hagman – are critical. In game, this is a great test for Awareness and Scavenge.
Religion is Important: Another quirky little point that comes out in the books is the importance of religion as a motif in the stories. The Spanish are, of course, catholic whereas the majority of the British army would be protestant – except for the Irish contingent. Harper’s observation of catholic practices is a lovely little way to unlock El Catalico’s duplicity.
A War of Many Nations: We have already seen a lot of the French, British, Portuguese and Spanish in the books so far – in this book we are introduced to the Polish Lancers and the cavalry of the King’s German Legion. The lancers are presented as a clear and present threat to infantry but as totally inferior to the KGL. On the flip side, the Legion is presented as lethally efficient and effective and has some interesting vignettes in the form of Captain Lossow and Sergeant Helmut. The key here is not to fall into stereotyping here. Even Cornwell acknowledges that his portrayal so far of the Spanish is far from flattering.
So Many Injuries: Sharpe plays fast and loose with the healing rules in this book. He is battered and bruised, shot, pierced and slashed. There doesn’t seem to be a moment in the book when he isn’t injured in some manner. The new rules for healing, using Measures as points that can be spent to buy off wounds, would model this much better than the more brutal wound system in the older ruleset. He’s a tough one, Richard Sharpe!