Saturday, January 16, 2010


Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Bernard Cornwell
(book review) Bernard Cornwell wastes neither space nor time in framing this historical adventure novel. By the end of the prologue, it is established that medieval England is a crappy place to be, crappier by degrees for those of the heretical persuasion, and crappier by orders for those of the female persuasion. As historical fiction goes, it builds macro-historical events around the personal story of one to a few main characters. This is achieved most excellently by the author, who has plenty of exciting and detailed historical material to work with, and makes the most of it without turning the book into too much of a college lecture. Still, Azincourt is as educational and realistic as it is entertaining and gripping.


The macro-history here is the Battle of Agincourt, styled Azincourt in the novel, where numerically superior French military might on home turf charged a journey-weary, battle-dented, disease-decimated English army. The prize for the French was not just the English nobility, but the king of England himself.

The king led his armies on what he believed was a divinely-sanctioned campaign, despite knowing he was a target of French vengeance for the Black Prince's capture of a French king a few decades prior. Despite this, King Henry V, better known in the popular imagination through Shakespeare, mounted what was supposed to be a simple "can't touch this" expedition, determined to capture a city or two, and otherwise trample enough French grass to make a point.

By the end of said expedition, facing waves of French muscle and steel on the furrowed fields near Azincourt, the prize for him and the English became survival itself. While the English achieved other memorable victories in the Hundred Years' War, such as those at Crecy and Poitiers, Agincourt stood out as an example of perseverance and simple but effective tactics in the face of overwhelming odds, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

And the star of the show was the professional longbow archer.


The storyline of the novel follows the adventures of a young longbow archer, Nick Hook, whose idealism and bad luck get him into trouble, and whose integrity, skill and instincts get him out of it. Bearer of a long-standing family grudge, Nick is already in trouble for attempting to settle the feud with his bow. A botched attempt to save a heretic girl on death row from a lecherous priest's depredation results in him being outlawed.

Forced to flee, his first vacation in France as a mercenary goes horribly wrong as he barely escapes death, while bearing witness to the fall and merciless sack of Soissons. His escape to England, a French girl he did successfully save from pillage in tow, gets him the attention of better-placed sponsors. Specifically, it lands him a post as a royal army archer, under a legendary knight, in the king's expedition ... right back to France.

With his old nemeses from back home tagging along the war party, the French are not the only enemies Hook has to worry about. The opening act of Operation French Freedom rapidly becomes a quagmire, and the English find disease as much a threat as the enemy soldiers. Pride and sunk costs do not allow them to simply return either - if they don't meander a bit through France on the way back, they and their king will lose face. So onward they trudge, hoping that thus avoiding loss of face will not result in the loss of entire heads to the enemy's blades. And the enemy are busy sharpening those blades, not too far from a village called Azincourt.


Cornwell peppers the book with plenty of spot lessons in historical warfare. There were a few moments when it gets a little long-winded, but the details are fascinating to read.

Cornwell describes the longbow and the longbow archer in depth in a section at the end of the book, but much is told in "teachable moments" during the course of the novel.

Although he sometimes mentions "bodkins", "aventails" and other words that may be out of the range of common vocabulary, he usually puts them in some context that allows the reader to at least get some idea of what he is talking about, and does not make historical knowledge pivotal to understanding the story. So if you think Tudor is a type of car, and Habsburg is a brand of beer, there's no need to worry about getting confused by the novel (besides, there's always Wikipedia for further reading). The book also educates in other military concepts and weapons (such as the then-recent introduction of cannons), and in medieval European society as well.


War is, of course, the primary theme of the book. And that war is hell is repeatedly hammered home. Wanton slaughter of men and brutal rape of women were accepted as an inevitable accompaniment to conquest in those days, as illustrated in the heart-sinking description of the fall of Soissons to the French. However, Cornwell does not completely demonize the French, as the English are described as preparing to do the same to the men and women of Harfleur (minus the priests and nuns, thanks to the English king's "mercy"). Besides, if you read the news about the Congo and Colombia, not much has changed in some places.

Another major theme is religion. The story begins with the torturous public execution of heretics, and gods' favors are frequently invoked as justification for war. There are good clerics and bad clerics - religion is not depicted by Cornwell as a driver of morality, but as a consequence of it. Our protagonist's own conscience, more pleasant than those of his medieval-thinking peers, eventually takes the form of the "voices" of Soissons' patron saints.

There are sub-plots of romance and grudges, but these serve more as pacing fillers (albeit decent ones) than major plot elements. The story of the Battle of Agincourt and the events leading up to it are themselves exciting enough that they dominate the novel.


A well-developed novel, very educational, rich with both information and action.

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