on November 29, 2008
This is currently (Nov 29) available from amazon.uk under the title "Azincourt", which is the French spelling of the town where the battle took place. It seems that this has confused quite a few of the Brit readers, and the US title will be "Agincourt". The flavor is similar to the Grail Quest series, but set in 1413-1415 rather than the 14th century, and the hero is Nick Hook rather than Thomas of Hookton: both are skilled archers, both have noble fathers but are not part of the nobility (in Hook's case the parentage is strongly suggested). The strengths of Cornwell's works are the battle scenes, and here you get the sieges of Harfleur and Soissons and of course Agincourt.
You get a good feel for the time and place--London and France--and the mercenary troops that Hook joins. There's a lot of attention to the armor of the period--almost too much attention. There are descriptions that have the donning of armor piece by piece which has the feel of Cornwell showing off his research rather than adding to the story--since it isn't Hook who is wearing the armor. Hook is an exceptionally skilled longbowman, which enables him to rise in the ranks and do more protagonizing, so to speak. We don't get too many novels about the ordinary grunts--those who might be good at their profession, but not great.
Cornwell is a very prolific writer. This is good in ways, but the danger is that sometimes in such cases novels are not always as original and creative as they could be. So in Azincourt we have a love interest, and we have some evil villains. Hook's main enemy is a lunatic priest of noble lineage, a bible-misquoting rapist. For me, this reminded me of Sgt Hakeswill of the Sharpe series who kept reappearing in the novels until, mercifully, Cornwell has him die: Hakeswill quickly began to get very tiresome indeed. If you think about the Sharpe series, what you remember best are the battles, the events and locales: the evil villians--especially Hakeswill--are easily forgotten. That might suggest that in a good historical novel with lots of battles, such as the Sharpe series or Azincourt, you don't need an evil villain in the story to make it interesting. You need to avoid becoming formulaic. Cornwell does not, thank goodness, churn out a new novel every month like some romance writers who epitomize formulaic writing. I didn't see any suggestion that the adventures of Nick Hook will be continued, although if it does continue, and Hook is part of a mercenary troop then Cornwell might be able to take us into less familiar territory--what was going on post-Agincourt? So you get here a mixture of some new characters plus some of Cornwell's previous formulas, and on balance, the novel is one of his best works.
on January 31, 2009
When I hear reviewers say that 'No one understands the experience of the common soldier better than Bernard Cornwell' or something similar, I smile and think, 'Yeah, well how about the common soldier? And by that, I mean the Infantry 'grunt' who wields a modern sword, still sleeps in mud and filth, and endures ordeals and trials the likes of which most people will only ever read about. It's just possible he might have a clue.
Having said that, let me add that no WRITER understands the experience of the common soldier better than Bernard Cornwell. He's the Ernie Pyle of, oh, let's see- the Viking raids, Napoleonic wars, the Middle Ages, and the American War Between the States (or for my Southern friends- 'The War of Northern Aggression). In short, Cornwell gets it right; the pride, the rage, the pain, the loss and the soul sucking weariness in the aftermath of battle.
AGINCOURT is his latest novel and his latest educational look at a battle that inspired so many writers and historians. Here we find young Nicholas Hook, an archer who...nevermind.
Don't you just hate it when some smug reviewer gives away too much of the plot before you've had a chance to read the book? 'Who would've known that such is such is really the bad guy, he or she dies, or here's how the major battle ends?
I don't know, the reader, for one. You're really capable of making up our own mind about what you like and/or the why behind why you like it.
So, I'll just say that if you're a Cornwell fan, you'll enjoy the book. He seldom skimps on storyline.
And if you're familiar with his themes then you already know that there has to be a troubled young soldier, more than a few fierce battles and close calls, revenge, of course, and a young woman who makes his arrow's quiver (sorry but I did avoid punning with the word 'shaft').
Typical too of Cornwell's writing is that there is also good history to be found in whatever era he sets his story. He does his homework so that we don't have to.
Finally, and this probably won't count for much but as a former common soldier, a lowly 'grunt' who took part in a distant war, in several close fierce battles, and bled on nameless battle fields a few times, I find Bernard Cornwell's work to be exceptional.
on January 26, 2009
Here's the situation. You're a peasant, and as we used to say back home, you're so broke you can't pay attention. You're in the middle of a medieval battlefield, filled with rough characters and sharp weapons, with nothing to cover your own precious hide but the clothes on your back. You have one superb weapon --- the English longbow --- but not much in the way of arrows. You also have a long, sharp stick, assuming you haven't burned it for firewood already. On the other side of the line of battle, there is a nobleman, a feudal lord who owns, more or less, the labor of hundreds of people just like you. He's on a horse, wearing a suit of armor that incorporates all of the best technology of the day and worth more than your entire village can produce in 10 years. You've shot your last arrow, and the guy with the armor is coming to crush your skull. A plan would seem to be in order.
This is what you do, if you're lucky enough and strong enough to pull it off. You plant yourself right in front of the galloping, charging horse (nobody said this was going to be easy), stab it with your sharpened stick, and hope that the animal is hurt enough and scared enough to knock its rider clean off. While the knight is still on his back, trapped under the weight of his armor, you find the one weak spot in the armor --- his visor. And then you draw your long hunting knife and stab the no-good wretch right in the eye. Score one for the home team.
That's the reality of medieval warfare. It's savage, messy, and a million miles away from something as comparatively cold and dispassionate as pushing the button that unleashes hundreds of pounds of high explosives from a Predator drone over a terrorist camp. And if you want to bring back that world in fiction, it's not enough to reproduce the strategies of battle and the blood and slaughter that follows in its wake. You have to know the ground --- the sticky French mud that bogged down a huge army, making it vulnerable to barefoot English archers. You have to know the technology --- how the English craftsmen took a piece of yew wood and shaped it into a weapon that changed history. You have to know the dynastic politics that animate the strategy, the engineering of the castles and the religious beliefs that led men into battle.
In other words, it's the kind of thing that Bernard Cornwell has been doing for years --- and nobody does it better.
If you're not familiar with Cornwell's work, you can start with his bestselling novels about the Viking era in England, which follow a ferocious war leader into the shield walls of Alfred the Great. Or you can check out the monumental Richard Sharpe series, which chronicles a Napoleonic War hero from the torture pits of an Indian warlord all the way to a personal confrontation with the Corsican corporal in exile on the lonely island of St. Helena. Both of these series (as well as other Cornwell novels set in the Civil War or the American Revolution) betray a comprehensive knowledge of their respective historical eras --- and, even more important, considerable skill in making the battlefields and characters come to full, comprehensible life.
Cornwell's books are populated with stout, resolute heroes, noble enemies and the treacherous plots of evil men. AGINCOURT is no exception; the differences are largely in the areas of weapons technology, strategy and the intricate details of late medieval life. Its principal hero, longbowman Nicholas Hook, differs from most Cornwell protagonists in his religious faith (notwithstanding that it's hard to be a good Christian when your job description involves stabbing people in the eye).
The story of the climactic battle of Agincourt has been told before, most notably by Shakespeare, who gives King Henry perhaps the most rousing speech in English literature. Cornwell incorporates that speech in his narrative, but it's more of a grace note than anything else. The real work is done in the trenches, by the men with the long bows and the empty stomachs. Cornwell tells their story, and nobody does it better.
--- Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds
on December 24, 2008
Having never read any of the Sharpe novels or any of his other books, I came to Cornwell's *Azincourt* (to give it its proper title) without any expectations. And was pleased to find it's a rollicking read - just what I needed between a few rather heavier academic books on Medieval history. A lot of the formulas of popular historical fiction are here - the plucky young hero who with an exceptional skill, the beautiful girl, the evil nemesis, struggles against the odds etc - but Cornwell could give most genre writers a few lessons in pacing, prose style and characterisation. This is good stuff, stirringly told and nicely handled.
The tricky bit with historical fiction is the history - firstly because it's hard to get all the details right and secondly because few agree on what all the details are. On that second point Cornwell has been wise to lean heavily on the two recent works on the Battle of Agincourt by Anne Curry and Juliet Barker. He's tended towards Barker's slightly more traditional reading of the evidence, but the result is a highly realistic and credible reconstruction of a battle that is still the subject of fierce and ongoing debate.
But it's getting the little details right that can be even trickier. At one point, for example, a character expresses surprise that some of the English Lollard heretics had been hanged rather than burnt at the stake. In fact, it was the burning which was unusual: in England heretics had always been hanged until Henry V's persecution of the Lollards.
Small things like that are forgivable, but an author who specialises in novels about historical warfare really needed to get the fine details of Medieval combat, armour and war spot on. In many places it seems Cornwell was a bit confused. A broad brimmed helmet worn by an archer is called a "bascinet", which is actually a tall, brimless helm worn by a man-at-arms. Cornwell seems to think that the segmented fauld that protected a knight's waist was a separate piece of armour (it was actually attached to the breastplate) and has a knight arming by putting his cuisses on his thighs first, then his greaves where it would have been the other way around (so the cuisses with their poleyns on the knees could overlap the greaves on the lower leg). He thinks a mail aventail is a hood of mail worn under the helmet. That's a coif and it had gone out of fashion 100 years before Agincourt; the aventail was a tippet of mail attached to the lower rim of the helmet. He also overstates the lack of visibility in a Fifteenth Century helmet. Yes, they restrict your vision, but not to the extent that you are "half-blinded" as Cornwell imagines. Perhaps it would have been good for the author to have spent a day with a Fifteenth Century re-enactment group before writing, because these small details do make a difference and many of his audience know them down to the finest point.
Minor niggles aside, this is a ripping yarn and one that should dispel any lofty ideas about the reality of Medieval warfare. Recommended holiday reading.
on April 22, 2009
Agincourt is another action-packed novel from Bernard Cornwell. It is about Nicholas Hook, an English archer who joins Henry V's war against the French, culminating in the legendary battle in 1415. On one hand, I enjoyed the novel as a rousing adventure, while on the other hand I feel slightly conned because it is so similar to The Archer's Tale. Normally, I do not mind that Cornwell's heroes are virtually identical: Sharpe, Derfel, Thomas of Hookton, Uhtred, and now Nicholas Hook are all natural warriors who eventually lead men into battle despite their low birth. Usually, the historical details are enough to distinguish the novels. The time period in Agincourt, however, is a lot like the time period in The Archer's Tale--the difference is less than 100 years. Both Thomas and Nicholas are archers, have murdered relatives, rescue young women from rape who turn out to be the daughters of enemies, and have religious quests. Even their names are alike. While I am glad that Cornwell decided to write about one of history's famous battles, he could have tried a different tact. His main character could have been a lord, woman, man-of-arms, squire, or camp follower. Anything but a lowborn warrior who excels because he is good at killing. At this point, I think that Cornwell needs to try something new.
on January 26, 2009
In my opinion, Bernard Cornwell is the greatest living writer of historical fiction. His Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur) is the most brilliantly written trilogy I've ever read. I am such a huge fan that I had my mother bring me the UK edition of this book so I could read it a few months before the US release date. My review is consequently colored by my very close familiarity with this author's earlier works.
Agincourt (Azincourt in the UK edition) is set during a pivotal phase of the Hundred Years' War: the reign of King Henry V. We follow the protagonist Nicholas Hook, an English archer obviously inspired in name and character by Thomas of Hookton of Cornwell's Grail Quest trilogy. Thomas gets a mention in this book as a legendary archer who managed to become wealthy, a nice shout-out that made me nostalgic for the far more interesting and well-developed earlier character. More on this point later. Nick gets entangled in the Siege of Soissons, the siege of Harfleur which makes up the middle of the book and the battle of Agincourt itself to close.
Part of what makes Cornwell's writing so good is his intense attention to detail, vividly painting the picture of a long-ago time and place in a compelling manner without feeling dry or academic. We certainly get a good sense of how warfare was conducted during the 15th century, and a little bit about how different life was for the nobility as opposed to everyone else. I admit to being so spoiled by the quality of Cornwell's writing that I've taken these things for granted. What I'm looking for are freshly imagined events and characters that deviate from his established formula.
By this I mean that most of the characters that Cornwell writes are offshoots of the fantastic individuals that populate the worlds of his best work. Nick Hook is, as I mentioned earlier, very similar to the grittier Thomas of Hookton from the Grail Quest novels. His woman Melisande is a French woman of noble blood, like Jeanette from the Grail Quest, who used to be a nun, like Hild from Cornwell's Saxon Stories. Lanferelle is a French nobleman with a grim reputation, like Guy Vexille from the Grail Quest. Sir Martin is an evil priest, a character who is present in almost every Cornwell novel, who quotes Scripture to his victims, like Obadiah Hakeswill from the Sharpe novels. I could keep on going for the other characters. Certain scenes seem to be recycled as well. To give one example, Nick and Melisande make a daring escape by pretending to be lepers, using their clappers and bells to drive off would-be captors. The very same ruse first made an appearance in one of the Grail Quest books, employed by Thomas and Jeanette.
In summary, if you have never read a Cornwell book then you will definitely enjoy reading this book. He makes the creation of an intriguing fictional storyline set in a highly accurate historical backdrop seem easy. If, like me, you have read nearly every single book produced by Mr. Cornwell, you will probably get the unfortunate feeling of having read this one before.
"Agincourt" is another lively but brutal lesson in English history, a primer in Medieval warfare and the campaigns and events that shaped what would eventually become the sprawling British Empire. As always, Cornwell spices his depiction of actual events with fictional characters - this time it's the 15th Century and the warrior king Henry V, told through the eyes of Nicholas Hook, an outlaw and archer in the King's army. The Hundred Year's War is coming to an end, chronicled here in the pious Henry's forays into France that would finally - if briefly - unite the two countries under English rule. Suffice to say, if we were taught history the way Bernard Cornwell writes it, we'd all be historians.
While Cornwell is admittedly not a scholar, he borrows heavily from scholarly works documenting the period, transforming academic text into swashbuckling human drama of love, greed, corruption, revenge and battlefield horror of unfathomable butchery - "...men of burning metal, phantoms from the dreams of hell, death coming through the dark to Soissons." But mostly "Agincourt" is homage to the humble English long bowman, a tribute to the yew bow and ash shaft and the men who trained a lifetime to develop the strength to send a bodkin-tipped arrow through an enemy's plate armor. Like the Battle of Crecy earlier in the Hundred Year's War (well told in Cornwell's highly recommended "The Archer" - the first and best of the "Grail" series), the English archer proved decisive in delivering battlefield victories over much larger and better equipped French legions. Beyond the tactics and strategies and decisions good and bad, Cornwell is at his best when describing the lives and deaths and fears and bloodlust of the men where the lines of battle become "a mess of torn metal and leather and muscle and guts." Through the mayhem, the author gently educates in topics as varied as 15th century Catholicism and the Lollards to the significance of heraldry and chivalry, while finding time to weave in the inevitable love story between the well-drawn Nicholas Hook and the fair Melisande, a French maiden and part time nun he rescues from slaughter during the horrific French army's rape their own town of Soissons.
In short, high drama and raucous history, an absolute must for the Cornwell fan and not a bad place to start for those who are not opposed to some well placed entertainment and carnage with their history.
on June 3, 2009
A truly well-written historical page-turner of a novel! My only complaint is the Sarah thing, I'd forgotten all about her by the epilogue... and the ending was TOO abrupt, my gosh it just "boom" ended!Was over and done with. After such a page-turning pace, the book hit me in the face as it ended. Highly recommended though and one of the better books I've read thus far this year 2009.
This is one of Bernard Cornwell's best offerings. I will concede that I don't read his Sharpe series nor his Starbuck series (I just don't care for those periods of history), but I enjoy all his other works & this is among his best. Here is the tale of Azincourt (the word may have been anglicized to Agincourt, but the place is Azincourt), the story that Shakespeare popularized in Henry V. Cornwell sticks almost entirely to historical fact in this tale, with a few concessions made in the historical note. But this tale is a strong historical telling through the eyes of fictional characters. The maps included in this are much better than in some of Cornwell's previous offerings.
Cornwell tells the tale of Nick Hook, a man with personal demons & enemies that are always near. Hook, due to a failed attempt at murder, is exiled & an archer in the English army. He uses the skill that he honed his entire life to use the English longbow with deadly accuracy. On his first journey to France, he saves a beautiful young woman during the vicious attack on Soissons & the two travel back to England. Defying punishment for returning, Nick is placed under a great Lord of England & meets the King.
Traveling to France with Henry to claim what Henry believes is his rightful crown, Nick watches the historical battles & sieges that have now become legend. With the assistance of 2 saints who speak to Nick, he becomes a leader of archers & is on the front lines of the battle at Azincourt, one of the greatest military accomplishments in history. Cornwell's ability to develop characters through whom we see the story unfold is at its best here. Nick is a real person, a man with fears & hopes. His struggle amongst the muck and mire of the battlefield in Azincourt is told with overwhelming grit & gore; Cornwell pulls no punches in telling of the horrors of battle in the middle ages.
For fans of Cornwell, homage is paid to archer Thomas of Hookton from Cornwell's Grail Quest Trilogy (The Archer's Tale,Vagabond &Heretic). I highly recommend that Trilogy, from the same period of time as this work, for those that enjoy this. I would also, in the spirit of this work, highly recommend Cornwell's Saxon Chronicles (The Last Kingdom,The Pale Horseman,Lords of the North &Sword Song, a series not yet complete & I eagerly await Vol. 5) & his Arthur Series.
I suggest a quick read of the historical note at the end of the book BEFORE you read this as it will provide setting & circumstances which led to the battles. Cornwell notes 3 historical works about Azincourt & I plan to read each; they are 'Agincourt: A New History' by Anne Curry, 'The Face of Battle' by John Keegan & the work that Cornwell lauds, Agincourt by Juliet Barker.
on February 13, 2009
Anyone with half an interest in English history is probably familiar with the broad story of the English victory over a vastly more numerous French army at the Battle of Agincourt, but what Bernard Cornwall's latest novel offers is an up close and detailed version of events from the perspectives of those involved.
Shakespeare's well known play necessarily focuses on the English King Henry, but Cornwall's strength has lain for years in allowing a version of history from the multiple perspectives of the many people involved.
Here the primary point of view is that of an English archer, and how appropriate is that?
But Cornwall's strength has always been his ability to write of battles, of conflicts between men with real sense of the action, whether it's in the Sharpe novels or others. Here is no different. The violence of the times and the battle itself is presented to the reader in gut-wrenching detail. If this isn't what it was like, I'd be surprised.
But Cornwall's strength has also been in creating characters with motives and heart that draws the reader in. Nick Hook is a great character, a man driven by revenge and hate, but also possessed of warmth and love for those close to him. And he can shoot an arrow over 200 yards and still find his mark.
The arrogance of those with power, the fear of those without, all is captured in a truly great yarn.
Read this book.