Review of Vagabond by Bernard Cornwell

Vagabond, Bernard Cornwell, Historical Fiction, Medieval History, Hundred Years War, Holy Grail, Middle Ages, Medieval England, Medieval FranceThe last review I did was on the historical fiction novel The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell, and I thought I would go ahead and finish out the series before moving on to other books.

Vagabond is the second installment in The Grail Quest Series by Bernard Cornwell, and the story continues with Thomas of Hookton during the Hundred Years War as he searches for the true heritage of his family, which is somehow connected to the grail. King Edward III of England learns of Thomas’ connection to the grail, and he sends Thomas on a mission to find it. The grail is believed to possess unimaginable power, and there are many who are seeking this power, including his cousin and bitter rival Count of Astarc Guy Vexville as well as a bloodthirsty Dominican Inquisitor.

Vagabond, like The Archer’s Tale, is full of sweeping battles that evoke all the senses, and as always, Cornwell’s historical details of medieval society are accurate and vivid. The first major battle is the Battle of Neville’s Cross in which the Scots invade northern England while the the majority of the English army is away in France, and the ending battle sequence takes place back in France at La Roche Derrien. Both scenes are equally captivating.

Cornwell also does a fantastic job with his characters and dialogue. After the Battle of Neville’s Cross, Thomas joins up with a Scotsman, who stays with Thomas for the remainder of book two and into book three (Heretic). The Scotsman’s dialogue is quite crude and salty at times, though realistic given he is a medieval soldier, and his character also provides humor to the narrative. Thomas’ serious nature offsets this humor and creates an interesting relationship between the two. The Scotsman became one of my favorite characters in the series.

If you’re looking for historical fiction with a love story, Vagabond probably isn’t the best choice. In any of the Cornwell books I’ve read, he has never made the love interest a major part of the story. If you’re looking for historical fiction with epic battles, adventure, flawed characters, engaging dialogue, and accurate medieval details, The Grail Quest series is a great place to start. No one re-creates medieval Europe as well as Bernard Cornwell.

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

Writing a Battle Sequence (Novel Excerpt Included)

Two armies face off across an open field. You’ve set the scene; the battle is about to begin, but what do you do now? How do you capture the chaos and frenzy of hand-to-hand combat on paper? Do you try to gather a sweeping panorama of the battle from an omniscient narrator’s point-of-view, pulling back and describing every action from cavalry to infantry to archers to artillery, giving the reader the sense that they are viewing the battle from an overhead, aerial view? I believe this is the mistake a lot of writers make when attempting to write such a scene. They remove themselves from the characters in an attempt to describe the battle, or they have the characters describe what they see in too much detail, and as a result, the sequence often comes across too slowly, and the battle loses that sense of chaos.

If your character is on the front lines, and the enemy army is approaching, your character may have time to describe what he sees in a wider perspective, but also in this instance, it’s important to stay inside your character’s head, so readers understand what he is thinking in that moment; he may be taking the entire battlefield in, and it would make sense to put this down on paper, or he may be scared out of his mind, and he can’t think of anything else besides how he is going to die, in which case your approach to writing the scene would be entirely different.

As that enemy army gets closer, and the first wave of troops smashes into the front ranks, your character — at that point — should only be thinking about what is immediately in front of him or beside him or behind him; he should not be able to see what the cavalry is doing on the far flanks; he should not be able to describe the king’s reaction to the battle who is commanding from somewhere behind him; he should not be able know that on the far side of the field, the enemy cavalry is attempting to circle around behind them and attack the line of archers. Stay inside your character’s head. Put yourself in that moment. What does he see: blood and spit and vomit and broken shields. What does he hear: men screaming, the tearing of flesh, the breaking of bones. What does he smell: blood and sweat and urine. Stay in the character, stay in the moment, and you will stay in the chaos.

No one does this better than Bernard Cornwell. The following is a passage from The Last Kingdom, where the Saxons are facing off against the Danes at Cynuit.

I was tired, too. I had not slept. I was soaking wet. I was cold, yet suddenly I felt invincible. It is a wondrous thing, that battle calm. The nerves go, the fear wings off into the void, and all is clear as precious crystal. and the enemy has no chance because he is so slow, and I swept the shield left, taking the scar-faced man’s spear thrust, lunged Wasp-Sting forward, and the Dane ran onto her point. I felt the impact run up my arm as her tip punctured his belly muscles, and I was already twisting her, ripping her up and free, sawing through leather, skin, muscle, and guts, and his blood was warm on my cold hand, and he screamed, ale breath in my face, and I punched him down with the shield’s heavy boss, stamped on his groin, killed him with Wasp-Sting’s tip in his throat, and a second man was on my right, beating at my neighbor’s shield with an ax, and he was easy to kill, point into the throat, and then we were going forward.

I love how Cornwell creates those long run-on sentences; by the time you get to the end of the passage, you’re out of breath from reading, making you feel as though you’re in the battle yourself. Here’s another passage, this one from The Archer’s Tale by Cornwell. This is at the Battle of Crecy during the Hundred Years War, told through the eyes of an English archer.

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 …

… the horses were on top of them, vast and high, lances reaching, the noise of the hooves and the rattle of mail overwhelming. Frenchmen were shouting victory as they leaned into the lunge …

… the lances struck the shields and Thomas was hurled back and a hoof thumped his shoulder, but a man behind pushed him upright so he was forced hard against the enemy horse. He had no room to use the sword and the shield was crushed against his side. There was the stench of horse sweat and blood in his nostrils. Something struck his helmet, making his skull ring and vision darken, then miraculously the pressure was gone and he glimpsed a patch of daylight and staggered into it, swinging the sword to where he thought the enemy was.

I thought I would also include an excerpt from my novel, as I’ve worked tirelessly to perfect the technique of writing a medieval battle sequence, though I’m not yet at the level of Cornwell — though in truth, few writers are at such a level.

The two shield walls collided with a crack of iron and wood, and Cobus held his shield high and felt the impact of a spear point snap against the wooden frame, and he felt the weight of men pushing in from the front as well as at his back, curses and screams and metal raking against wood and the crunching of flesh, and he saw the feet of his enemies digging into the earth, and overhead, he heard the whooshing of spears being thrown into the deeper ranks of the Pagannian lines. He felt the enemy wall falter as the fighting shifted to the left, and he saw a break in the line and lunged forward with his shield, the impact sending a burst of pain up his left arm, but the pain disappeared quickly, and he stabbed to his left with the point of his short sword, and the steel tip ripped into flesh and bone, and a soldier fell to the ground at his feet. He stepped over the fallen body and attacked the next man who tried to fill the gap, and stabbing over his shield, his blade caught the man in the throat, spraying blood, a fine mist, warm and bright red, and the man grabbed at the steel edge stuck in his neck. Cobus ripped the sword free, another gush of blood, the man’s face pale and eyes wide, hands grasping at the wound as he fell to his knees choking and gurgling on his own blood.

Author Profile: Bernard Cornwell

I thought I would start a series of author profiles, highlighting a new author each week. The profiles are intended to give you some background information about each author: where they grew up, how they got started, what they’ve written, things of that nature. I thought I would start with Bernard Cornwell, since he’s my favorite.

Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell, an English novelist of historical fiction, was born in London on February 23, 1944. His father was a Canadian airman, and his mother was a member of Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted and raised in Essex by a strict Protestant religious group known as the Peculiar People, but he later left them and went to London University and changed his last name to his mother’s maiden name, Cornwell. He taught school for a while and then later went to work for BBC Television, where he stayed for the next ten years. His career began as a researcher on the Nationwide Programme, and he worked his way up to Head of Current Affairs Television for the BBC in Northern Ireland. He met his wife, Judy (an American), during his time in Ireland.

In 1980, Bernard and Judy married, and they moved to the United States. While there, the U.S. government denied him his Green Card, and so he began to write in order to earn a living, as he did not need a permit to do so.

And so the Sharpe Series was born.

Cornwell began writing a series of novels following a British rifleman (Richard Sharpe) through the various major battles of the Peninsular War. He began with the novels Sharpe’s Eagle and Sharpe’s Gold, both published in 1981.

Cornwell and wife Judy co-write a series of novels, published under the pseudonym Susannah Kells. A Crowning Mercy was published in 1983, Fallen Angels in 1984, and Coat of Arms (aka The Aristocrats) in 1986.

After writing and publishing eight Sharpe novels, Cornwell was approached by a production company with the idea of adapting the novels for television. Sharpe’s Rifles was published in 1987 along with a series of Sharpe television films featuring Sean Bean.

Cornwell is currently working on a new work titled Azincourt. It is slated for release in the UK in October 2008.

Novels by Cornwell:

* 1981 – Sharpe’s Eagle and Sharpe’s Gold
* 1982 – Sharpe’s Company
* 1983 – Sharpe’s Sword, Sharpe’s Enemy and A Crowning Mercy
* 1984 – Fallen Angels
* 1985 – Sharpe’s Honour
* 1986 – Sharpe’s Regiment and Coat of Arms (aka The Aristocrats)
* 1987 – Sharpe’s Siege and Redcoat
* 1988 – Sharpe’s Rifles and Wildtrack
* 1989 – Sharpe’s Revenge and Sea Lord (aka Killer’s Wake)
* 1990 – Sharpe’s Waterloo and Crackdown
* 1991 – Stormchild
* 1992 – Sharpe’s Devil and Scoundrel
* 1993 – Rebel
* 1994 – Copperhead
* 1995 – Sharpe’s Battle, Battle Flag and The Winter King
* 1996 – The Bloody Ground and Enemy of God
* 1997 – Sharpe’s Tiger and Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur
* 1998 – Sharpe’s Triumph
* 1999 – Sharpe’s Fortress and Stonehenge: A Novel of 2000 BC
* 2000 – Harlequin (aka The Archer’s Tale)
* 2001 – Sharpe’s Trafalgar and Gallows Thief
* 2002 – Sharpe’s Prey, Sharpe’s Skirmish and Vagabond
* 2003 – Sharpe’s Havoc, Sharpe’s Christmas and Heretic
* 2004 – Sharpe’s Escape and The Last Kingdom
* 2005 – The Pale Horseman
* 2006 – Sharpe’s Fury and The Lords of the North
* 2007 – Sword Song
* 2008 – Azincourt

Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Azincourt, Agincourt, Hundred Years War, Bernard Cornwell, historical fiction, novel, medieval historyBernard Cornwell’s new historical fiction novel Azincourt is expected to be released this October (2008) in the UK. The US version will not come out until January of 2009 most likely. The novel will be a stand-alone, not a series, and will obviously cover the events surrounding the famous Battle of Agincourt in October of 1415. Azincourt is the French spelling of the name. Originally, it was to be titled Slaughteryard, but after some discussion, Cornwell and his publishers agreed to change the name to Azincourt. The Battle of Agincourt is renowned for the demonstration of the destructive power of the English longbow.

Bernard Cornwell – The Pale Horseman (Saxon Chronicles Book 2)

Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman, Saxon Chronicles, historical fiction, King Alfred the Great, Wessex, Danes, medieval, EnglandThe year is 877 AD, and the Saxons have just defeated the Danes at Cynuit, though troubles for Alfred and his kingdom of Wessex are far from over. The Danes control three of the four major kingdoms in England — Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia — and they are continuing to push farther into Wessex, intent on conquering the last kingdom.

The Pale Horseman, Cornwell’s second novel in the Saxon Chronicles, continues to the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Still torn among his loyalties to Alfred, his Danish upbringing, and the home from which has been dispossessed in Northumbria, Uhtred sets out to make a name for himself as a warrior. His youthful arrogance creates for him many enemies, and while I liked his character in the first novel, his arrogance breeds brutality, selfishness, and a general lack of concern for others (especially his wife and child) and that makes him less appealing in this story. By the end, however, I started to gain respect for Uhtred again.

Cornwell does a good job with the protagonist, creating good and bad qualities that constantly shift your opinion of the main character, and even though Uhtred is well-rounded, I found the many of the supporting characters in this novel somewhat uninteresting. The cast of characters (Ragnar, Brida, Leofric, Kjartan and Sven) that made the first novel (The Last Kingdom) so engaging are basically non-existent in this novel, and we are introduced to a host of new faces, who in truth, do not add much to the storyline. King Alfred plays a major role, but his personality is boring — though his boring personality may be an accurate portrayal of his real personality in life — and I wonder from this how Alfred was able to inspire his countrymen to fight and save Wessex from complete annihilation. Iseult, a Briton shadow-queen, is Uhtred’s love interest in this novel, but there is little depth given to their relationship.

Despite the lower quality of the characters and slower pacing, Cornwell still does a great job with the medieval historical details as always — his battle scenes are unmatched — and by the end, the novel really starts to pick up speed and ends on a high note. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, Lords of the North, in the Saxon Chronicles series. I just hope Cornwell brings back some of the older characters and storylines and that he will add more depth to King Alfred’s character. Alfred is king for a reason, but from what I’ve read, I don’t feel inspired to follow him, and I’m not sure why any of his subjects would feel inspired to follow him either. But maybe that’s just the way he was; I haven’t studied him much beyond basic reading and superficial facts.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Bernard Cornwell – Sword Song (The Saxon Chronicles, Book 4)

Bernard Cornwell, Sword Song, Saxon Chronicles, Novel, Historical Fiction, Medieval, England, Vikings, King AlfredBernard Cornwell’s latest novel in the Saxon Chronicles, Sword Song, was released Tuesday, January 22nd. I’m eager to pick this one up, though I’m still two novels behind in the series. I’m almost done with The Pale Horseman. It’s taking me a little longer to get through this one as my wife and I are actually reading through it together. I first read The Last Kingdom over two years ago when I was working at a bookstore. We weren’t actually supposed to read while on duty, but when you’re stuck up at the register all day, you need something to keep you entertained; and there’s just so much dusting and organizing a person can do for eight hours. I instantly loved The Last Kingdom, and I was already familiar with Bernard Cornwell from reading The Archer’s Tale. Cornwell, in my opinion, is one of the best writers of historical fiction today.

Below is a description of the novel, taking from Amazon. I plan to write my review after I’ve read it.

The year is 885, and England is at peace, divided between the Danish kingdom to the north and the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the south. Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a Northumbrian lord—warrior by instinct, Viking by nature—has finally settled down. He has land, a wife, and two children, and a duty given to him by King Alfred to hold the frontier on the Thames. But then trouble stirs: a dead man has risen, and new Vikings have arrived to occupy the decayed Roman city of London. Their dream is to conquer Wessex, and to do it they need Uhtred’s help.

Alfred has other ideas. He wants Uhtred to expel the Viking raiders from London. Uhtred must weigh his oath to the king against the dangerous turning tide of shifting allegiances and deadly power struggles. And other storm clouds are gathering: Ætheleflæd—Alfred’s daughter—is newly married, but by a cruel twist of fate, her very existence now threatens Alfred’s kingdom. It is Uhtred—half Saxon, half Dane—whose uncertain loyalties must now decide England’s future.

A gripping story of love, deceit, and violence, Sword Song is set in an England of tremendous turmoil and strife—yet one galvanized by the hope that Alfred may prove an enduring force. Uhtred, his lord of war and greatest warrior, has become his sword—a man feared and respected the length and breadth of Britain.