Review of The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell

The Archers Tale, Grail Quest Series, Bernard Cornwell, Historical Fiction, Middle Ages, Medieval, Medieval HistoryI was looking over my site and realized I don’t write as many reviews of novels as I would like to. So I thought I’d go back through the list of books I’ve read over the years and write reviews on them. I normally like to review novels immediately after I’ve read them, but there are so many good novels I’ve read in the past that I would hate to leave those out. I decided to start with The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell. This was the first novel that got me hooked on the historical fiction writings of Bernard Cornwell.

The Archer’s Tale is the first novel in the Grail Quest Series by Bernard Cornwell. Set during the Hundred Years War between England and France, the novel follows the life of an English Longbowman in search of his family’s past.

The story opens in the small village of Hookton in the south of England, where a raid by a small force of French fighters leaves the village utterly decimated. The main character, Thomas of Hookton, survives the raid and makes it his personal mission to discover who was behind the attack and why.

He then joins the English army as a longbowman, so he can travel to France and hopefully find the men responsible for burning his home and killing his father, and while there, he saves a beautiful woman known as the “Blackbird” from being raped by the English knight Sir Simon Jekyll. The English knight then becomes one of Thomas’s biggest rivals throughout the story, and the “Blackbird” (Jeanette) is his love interest.

The Archer’s Tale is a fine piece of historical fiction, full of thrilling battles and skirmishes that depict the true savagery and brutality of medieval warfare. The siege at Caen shows just how violent the armies during the Middle Ages could be; soldiers would pillage and rape and murder without conscience, without consequences, without concern. It was a violent time, and Cornwell makes this harsh truth come alive through his use of language, vivid imagery, salty dialogue, and historical details — his historical research on the medieval period is excellent.

Cornwell’s greatest strength in his ability to describe a battle. The novel ends with the famous, historical Battle of Crecy where the English army under Edward III faces off against the French army under Philip VI. Cornwell does a fantastic job of putting the reader directly in the front lines of battle. The following is a passage from that particular battle sequence:

Thomas shot again and again, not thinking now, just looking for a horse, leading it with the steel arrowhead, then releasing. He drew out a white-feathered arrow and saw blood on the quills and knew his bow fingers were bleeding for the first time since he had been a child. He shot again and again until his fingers were raw flesh and he was almost weeping from the pain, but the second charge had lost all its cohesion as the barbed points tortured the horses and the riders encountered the corpses left by the first attack …

Even as the battle draws to a close and night settles over Crecy, the war is not yet over for the English … or for Thomas. The longbowman from Hookton must continue on in pursuit of his father’s killers and to uncover the treasure they are after.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

7 thoughts on “Review of The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell

  • This was my first Cornwell novel too. I completely agree with you about his talent for describing battles. I feel like I’m right there with the characters, although in much less danger. No other author has managed to give me that feel in quite the same way as Cornwell does. I also love that he tries to make his battles historically accurate to the best of our knowledge – I know that I’m getting the full experience that way.

  • Have you ever read his Arthurian trilogy? It is maybe 10 years old. It came before the Grail trilogy (that I still haven’t read). Its pretty wild. It includes a lot of Celtic mythology. I imagine it is probably the biggest departure from his usual fare. I’ve been meaning to read his Wessex trilogy but I’ve never got around to it.

  • I have not read the Arthurian trilogy yet. I am planning to read that one after I finish the Saxon Chronicles. I’m on Book 3 of the Saxon Chronicles right now. It’s also a very good series. I have heard his Arthurian series is arguably his best. I can’t wait to read it.

  • I liked it but I like Celtic mythology and it doesn’t bother me when the traditional storyline changes. I’ve got the first one of the Saxon Chronicles, but I haven’t found the time. If I recall correctly, some fans of his Sharpe’s series didn’t like the Arthurian one, but they may like very historical stories.

  • The first in the Saxon Chronicles, The Last Kingdom, is very good. That’s one of my favorites by Cornwell. The second one is good but not as good as the first. I still have books three and four to read, but I’m currently reading A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin. Trying to finish that one up before the next installment comes out, supposedly this fall. What are you reading at the moment?

  • I have truly enjoyed many of Mr. Cornwells novels but my lifestyle has meant that I locate them sporadically and in no chronological order. Now that I have retired I would like to read some of the differing series in proper order.

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