by Bernard Cornwell
Book Four in Cornwell’s Grail Quest series
It is 1356, and the Black Prince is leading English troops in an invasion of France. The French draw strength from numbers and their allies, the Scots, but England is armed with the greatest archers Europe has ever seen. Rumor swirls that one holy relic can tip the balance: la Malice, the legendary sword of St. Peter himself. Thomas of Hookton and his men, the Hellequin, are charged with finding the sword before France uses it to eliminate the English threat forever.
This is my first time reading one of Cornwell’s novels, though he has long been recommended to me as one of the better war historical fiction writers out there for stories. I assumed 1356 was a standalone novel, and to some degree it is. Although it involves many of the characters from a previous trilogy, the gap in time (both in the story and inbetween publication of this novel and its predecessor, Vagabond) does allow the reader to understand the action in this book without reading the rest of the series. Thomas and his friends do occasionally refer to past events, and they quickly sketch out enough details that the reader can understand the current situation, although one remains aware that there’s clearly more to the tale.
Thomas of Hookton and his wife Genevieve are probably the most interesting people wandering through the story; Genevieve, especially, shows bravery that would make her the envy of any man of her era. A lot of the other characters are pretty one-note and flat. The evil Count Labrouillade, naturally, is a cruel, fat, piggy man – because there’s always one of those in a medieval novel. We’ve also got the required animalistic wild Scottish warrior, cheerful and silver-tongued Irishman, corrupt man of the Church, beautiful damsel-in-distress, and pure knight in shining armor.
The book is very fast-paced, and details the horrors of war with gristly, nasty detail. Not every author can convincingly convey the movements of a heated battle, but those scenes are Cornwell’s best. It culminates in Battle of Poitiers, where the action takes control of the narrative and refuses to stop.
But the quest for la Malice? Eh. The adventure is plodding rather than thrilling. I think that those who are already fans of Thomas and the Hellequin will gobble this right up, but it may not captivate new readers.
3 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth
2012: Fashionista Piranha on vacation until May 24th
2011: Bending the Boyne by J. S. Dunn
2010: Giveaway #13: Asian Pacific American Lot
2009: News: Digital Piracy Affects Books, Too