First in a series of novels about the Napoleonic Wars, this covers the Talavera Campaign of July 1809. Richard Sharpe ("a low-born bastard") has risen through the ranks and after ten years has become a lieutenant in the 95th Rifles fighting the French on the Spanish peninsula. We meet him amid lice and maggots (from his leg wound), wishing his battalion would be posted home: he's too poor to buy his next promotion. But Sir Arthur Wellesley (soon to be the Duke of Wellington) assigns Sharpe's troops (35 riflemen) to accompany the newly-arrived, immaculately-tailored South Essex Battalion on an expedition to blow up a big bridge. Leading the South Essex is Colonel Henry Simmerson, a perverted nincompoop who flogs his men, has himself bled, and thinks Sharpe a damned disgrace. But Sharpe shows him up by teaching the South Essex how to fire four shots a minute, and as they march to the bridge he's distracted by beautiful Portuguese widow Josefina (who will, alas, be violently raped). At the bridge Simmerson fires a ludicrous volley at out-of-range French troops; the bridge blows up with the English stranded on the wrong side of the river; the slaughter is heavy. And, now promoted to acting captain, Sharpe determines to capture the Frenchmen's most precious flag, subverts a near-mutiny brought on by Simmerson's lust for mass flogging, and joins in the difficult victory at Talavera. Nicely-edged characters, technicolor action, clipped narration--a solid series send-off.