It’s December 1812 and Sharpe is tasked with the rescue of some important hostages who have been taken by a group of deserters. To make matters worse, one of the hostages in the wife of a senior officer (and a former flame of Sharpe), another is the wife of a French officer and one of the deserters is his nemesis, Hakeswill. Oh, and he has a troop of rockets as well…
Of course, Sharpe succeeds, with the help of the French as they find a common enemy, but is inevitably forced to defend the broken castle and convent that the deserters were using as a base from the French and stop an invasion of Portugal. Characters are introduced, others return and two series regulars die in this … eventful addition to the Sharpe series.
What’s in the game?
Who are the characters?
Once again, Sharpe and Harper are the central characters (and hardly Harper for most of the book) but they are joined by Capt. Frederickson, who you could easily believe is a new player character introduced into an ongoing campaign. He is quirky, well-defined and competent – easily holding his own with Sharpe and Harper. Lt Harry Price appears as well, as does Hagman, but he hardly does anything more than get told what to do and act as a cheerleader for Sharpe. Poor Lt Price.
What are the missions?
On reading the book it looked like one long mission, but it becomes obvious it is two; ‘rescue the hostages’ and ‘defend the Gateway of God’ as the French try to capture it. Within this structure, you can break down the individual challenges – the scouting, the infiltration etc.
A Pair of Classic Motifs
The story centres around two strong motifs that are subtly woven into the text. The first is the time, around Christmas, that the story is told. There’s snow, celebration meals and German troops dressing a tree. It creates an interesting framework around which the second motif is hung; food. The minor villain of the piece, a deserter known as Pot-au-Feu is a chef, and the story is interspersed with descriptions of the simple delicacies of French cuisine. In game terms, using some devices to just add a different twist to a tale can be refreshing. What time of year is it in your game? What do people eat?
Bringing back some old faces.
Pot-au-Feu appeared in Sharpe’s Havoc, Josephina was last seen in Sharpe’s Gold and Hakeswill is an old enemy of Sharpe across the series. This re-use of old characters, especially Josephina, creates a beautifully layered approach to any character’s history and brings added depth to a game. Bringing back a minor NPC in a stronger position can spice things up nicely.
An ‘entente cordiale’ (…of sorts)
One character that stands out in the story is Colonel Dubreton, the French officer who Sharpe works with to defeat the deserters and rescue the hostages. Dubreton (with his own giant Sergeant at his side) is very much a French analog of Sharpe and offers the face of the honorable French solider that is sometimes missing in the earlier books. The scenes where the English and French meet, knowing that in the near future they may be fighting, offers in game terms, a chance for some rich roleplaying. Not something to be overdone but again, a very different structure from the usual conflict.
The inclusion of Lt. Gilliand and his Congreve rocket troop adds a wrinkle to the tactics available to Sharpe, even if he is distrustful of them to start with. In game terms, this is a one-and-done addition to your regiment’s options for combat and offers the chance for a bit of creativity. Of course, questions might be asked about the possibility of a rocket troop becoming a permenant attachment to the regiment – that’s for the fiction to answer!
A different sort of old arsehole
Sir Augustus Farthingdale represents a recurring theme in Sharpe’s adventures – an old, rich upper-class buffoon who believes that his birth, breeding and rank make him a good soldier. Farthingdale is no Simmerson, however, and his besotted love of Josphenia (to him, the Lady Farthingdale) is his Achilles Heel. In many ways, Sir Augustus is a cursory warning not to repeat old tropes, but at least he backs down and understands his limitations – eventually.
The changing of the guard
In an excellent piece of ‘game as fiction’, we finally see the end of Obadiah Hakeswill – Sharpe’s long-standing nemesis and are introduced to ‘Major’ Ducos, the French intelligence officer that will dog the latter books. You need this sometimes. As iconic a bad guy as Hakeswill is, there comes a time when even his legendary habit of not dying stretches credibility. Ducos is a much more suitable adversary for a Major than a deserter Sergeant.
Knowing when to end … the disappointing end
The book isn’t all good – the ending is rather strange. Sharpe leads the near-traditional destruction of yet another French column and all seems well. And then there is a strange feint of a retreat, Harper blows up a building, Nairn arrives with reinforcements, Teresa is killed by Hakeswlll and then apprehended by the French, handed over and executed by Sharpe. It’s all very rushed and doesn’t serve the story well. In a game, this would feel like the game running out of time and good ideas being forced through to just get them into the session. Or, in terms of a mission, having already ‘won’ the mission but continuing to play out the scenes but not giving them space to breathe. Take your time and make sure that every challenge within a mission is given the chance to be meaningful.