February 20, 2013 by Ray Yanek
“The trains roared by like projectiles level on the darkness, fuming and burning, making the valley clang with their passage. They were gone, and the lights of the towns and villages glittered in silence.” –D.H. Lawrence
And in that silence, I poured a glass of wine, pulled my chair close to the frosted window, and in the glow of the fire took up a book…
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Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt is the story of historical battle of Agincourt where a wasted English army, lead by the devout King Henry V, met a larger and healthier, French army. The battle also served as the backdrop for Shakespeare’s play Henry V and I picked up Cornwell’s book to examine, with academic rigor and scrutiny, the similarities and differences in the portrayal of the events.
Yeah, okay, not really. I picked up the book because George RR Martin had a blurb on the cover, and I’d heard Martin talk up Cornwell before. Plus, I’ve always had the urge to dip into historical fiction anyway.
Martin blurbs that Cornwell “does the best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present.” The blurb was perhaps one of the most accurate I’ve read. From the long siege of Harfleur that begins Henry’s campaign into France to the pivotal battle at Agincourt, the battle scenes are brutal and bloody, realistic and meticulously researched, vivid and cinematic. At times, Cornwell’s battle descriptions border on the artistic. In describing the Battle of Agincourt, Cornwell moves effortlessly across the front lines and transitions into the viewpoints of all the major characters so seamlessly that, if you’re reading as a writer, you can’t help but to marvel at the deftness with which he does so.
And in the midst of these sweeping and brutal battles is bastard-born archer, Nicholas Hook who believes he hears Divine voices. These voices begin for Hook after he is ordered to London to help hang the Luddites. Hook is made to put the noose around the neck of an old man, who is an archer like Hook himself. Feeling a connection to Hook, the old man begs one favor: save his granddaughter who is also waiting to be hanged. A voice that Hook believes comes from God tells him he should promise and so Hook does. Although the girl, Sarah, is saved from the noose, she is forced to endure a much more brutal end at the hands of the sinister Father Martin and his two bastard sons. It’s an end more brutal then a hanging. It’s an end that the voices in Hook’s head tell him he can save her from, that he can still fulfill the promise he makes to her grandfather, if only he acts.
But Hook doesn’t act.
Angry and guilt ridden, Nicholas later lashes out at Father Martin then is forced to flee and live as an outlaw. He becomes a mercenary and witnesses the barbaric rape and sack of Soissons in France. His actions at the battle earn him a reprieve from his outlaw status and he is put under the command of the surly and hot-tempered Sir John, until Henry crosses the Channel and makes his foray into France.
A Lesson in Tension—Writers Take Note
The scene mentioned above, regarding the girl Sarah, is a scene that reverberates throughout the novel. Not only does it serve as an the inciting incident to get Hook moving, but it also sets the parameters for the danger that lurks in the background of the story. The scene establishes that no character is safe. Because Hook fails and the angelic Sarah is brutalized, the danger in every scene and every skirmish becomes that much more palpable. I came to believe, like in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire or in any issue of the Walking Dead comic books, that any character could die at any moment.
Add to that the menace of Father Martin constantly lurking in the background and the tension of the novel hangs thick from that scene until the book’s conclusion. You feel it on the gut level.
A Criticism or Two
I enjoyed the novel. However, I would have enjoyed it even more had Cornwell gone a little deeper into the internal lives of the characters. Without a doubt, the focus of the novel is on the action. The character are colorful and distinct, yes: Nicholas Hook hears the voice of the saints; Sir John is foul-mouthed and surly; The French Lafarelle becomes a striking image atop his war horse as his black hair flows down to his waist. But the characters lack, especially Hook early in the novel, an emotional depth and roundness. Flat would be the work to describe them, I think, as we don’t see their emotions as much as I feel we could have given the highly emotional events surrounding these characters. And they seem to forget important things. Hook, for example, has a brother, Michael, whom he cares for deeply but he disappears for a large part of the novel and Nick hardly mentions or thinks of him. The scene with Sarah mentioned above also generally falls away as the story progresses even though it is an integral part of Hook’s motivation.
As Hook moves through the story, his emotions start to show a little more, but that emotional flatness still made it hard for me to connect with Hook at the beginning.
More By the Author:
I generally put about as much stock into log lines as I do book blurbs, but the log-line of Cornwell’s newest novel 1356 hooked me: “Go with God and Fight Like the Devil.” The book description on Amazon says “Bernard Cornwell, the “master of martial fiction” (Booklist), brings Thomas of Hookton from the popular Grail Quest series into a new adventure in 1356, a thrilling stand-alone novel. On September 19, 1356, a heavily outnumbered English army faced off against the French in the historic Battle of Poitiers. In 1356, Cornwell resurrects this dramatic and bloody struggle—one that would turn out to be the most decisive and improbable victory of the Hundred Years’ War, a clash where the underdog English not only the captured the strategic site of Poitiers, but the French King John II as well. In the vein of Cornwell’s bestselling Agincourt, 1356 is an action-packed story of danger and conquest, rich with military strategy and remarkable characters—both villainous and heroic—transporting readers to the front lines of war while painting a vivid picture of courage, treachery, and combat.”
If you know of any other historical fiction writers that I may be interested in, please drop me a line and let me know!