Tuesday, 1 September 2009


Bernard Cornwall is my favourite historic fiction author right now; his credits include the great Sharpe series and an excellent retelling of the Arthurian cycle among others. He has an ear for battle and for the superstitious nature of warriors desperate for any edge in battle. He also has a respect for the visceral nature of battle and grim realities of warfare and siege, relaying these in a matter-of-fact manner. Those of a delicate disposition may find the descriptions gruesome but medieval war is neither gentle or delicate business.

Nicholas Hook, a serf and archer outlawed by family feud and striking a priest during a purge of heretics in London is a likeably pragmatic underdog. He must contend with vengeful relatives, sadistic priests, the arbitrary might of nobles, the brutality of war and what comes after with his skill as an archer, an eye for opportunity and rare help from unusual sources. Not the most erudite man, his development through the book is measured and believeable.

The book presents a yeoman's eye-view, first as an archer in a mercenary band at the massacre of Soissons, then as part of a military company of archers in the army of Henry V who after a grueling siege at Harfleur end up at the bloody battle of Azincourt. Cornwall makes good use of Christian theology in reckoning dates and emphasising the dominant and pervasive nature of the Church in dealing with kings and peasants alike.

Cornwall's love of this particular era of history shines through. The characters are consistent and considered, even the Seigneur de Lanferelle, a knight famed for cruelty at Soissons is believable and in some points sympathetic. The book rattles along and the battle scenes are reminiscent of Branagh's Henry V and Braveheart both in sweeping scale and bloody mire - while the story is Anglocentric, it's unsurprising, just as Braveheart's sympathies are Scottish.

Though some gamers may find Azincourt's love for the combination of war bow and poleaxe unseemly in places, the description of melees and effectiveness of armour makes interesting reading. In my edition of the book, Cornwall goes further and shares some of his research, showing some of the history of what it took to make a good battle archer and the effects that the bow had on armour and warfare during this turbulent time.

I recommend this book, not just for it's craft but also for it's content. It presents a compelling vision of the archers as an elite force and it's knowledge of the archer's trade and reputation among English citizens and French soldiers alike. Characters have believable flaws and are given opportunity to reveal and overcome them. The battle sequences are distinctive and pull no punches, from the rout of Soissons and horrors of Harfleur's siege to Azincourt's muddy glory.

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