Thomas of Hookton and his men, familiar to readers of Bernard Cornwell after the events of his Grail Quest series, are still in the middle of France, seeking to help Edward III and his son Edward, the Prince of Wales, called the Black Prince but not in his own time, to win the Hundred Years’ War. Focusing on the Battle of Poitiers, a true historic battle fought by the Black Prince, Cornwell takes Thomas around the lead-up to the battle where he must seek another holy relic, protect his wife and his men, and face down corruption from the Church’s most inner circles.
I love reading Bernard Cornwell’s medieval historical fiction; when I’m reading one of his books, I feel I’m actually getting fairly close to the way things would have been in a battle, at least as close as fiction can bring me at present. Cornwell does sometimes like to introduce slight supernatural elements which do serve to remind me that actually, I’m not in the *real* 1356. In context, though, knowing that people of this era believed that they had holy relics and deeply in the power of their religion, this works surprisingly well, and doesn’t ruin the feel of the book for me at all. In this book, Thomas is after a sword; in his previous trilogy, he sought the Holy Grail.
Throughout 1356, the characters do move around the countryside, and we learn about many of the things that made the Black Prince and the Hundred Years’ War relatively famous. The chevauchées throughout the countryside, weakening the French significantly, the practice of tournaments, and the strength of the English archers and the significant advantage they represented all feature majorly in the book. Chivalry is demonstrated most eloquently through a particular character, Roland, who believes himself to be a knight without reproach, convinced by romances that he was meant to always fight honorably and in a certain way. He learns, over the course of the book, that actually, it’s about winning, not really so much about remaining honorable at this stage in history. Chivalry is a fascinating subject and one that I spent some time studying, and I loved that Cornwell featured a small tournament on the outskirts of the battle, as did genuinely happen, as part of Roland’s learning process.
As usual, Cornwell’s battle scenes are gripping and his writing kept me very interested as I progressed through the book. I really like his down-to-earth style. I generally don’t feel too attached to his characters, but I felt like this set of them was very well-rounded, as though they could have been real people, helped by the fact that I’ve read books featuring them before. Even the new additions stand out in my memory, though, and I liked how they faced individual challenges, yet all had a part to play in the massive battle that came at the end.
Overall, another excellent addition to Cornwell’s impressive collection of historical fiction works. You needn’t read the Grail Quest series to enjoy this book, although I do think it adds to it – all you need is a keen interest in history. Recommended.
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