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Review: 1356, Bernard Cornwell

1356Thomas 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.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.

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8 comments to Review: 1356, Bernard Cornwell

  • I’ve yet to read Cornwell, and surprised the characters are fictional as I’d always assumed he wrote more factually. Fictional makes it more appealing somehow, I think it’s easier to read historical books when you know there’s less chance of real people being treated with any bias. This sounds very good.
    Charlie´s last post …J R Crook – Sleeping Patterns

  • I think this one sounds very good, and as you already know, I have a huge love of historicals. I haven’t tried anything by Cornwell yet, but I might try to get the first book in this series and check it out. I love the way that you described the characters. They sound very well crafted. Excellent review today!
    zibilee´s last post …A More Diverse Universe: Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King — 469 pgs

  • anjali

    hey, i read your blog regularly but never had the chance to comment before today. this seems like a great book and will surely try to read it since you recommend it.
    but what i wanted to ask is when will you review ashes of honor by seanan mcguire. i have read it, but it has become a habit of mine to read your reviews and compare my impressions of a book to it. so will you please review it so that i can at last feel that i have read the last chapter of ashes of honor.
    thanks.

  • I must admit that I refuse to read this series. It’s just a story now but the English determination to conquer France and its devastation of the country and its people in that determination is nothing I can manage to find admirable.
    JRTomlin´s last post …Historical Fiction Can Be Exciting!

    • Marilyn Gallin

      Since reading Bernard Cornwells Azincourt I have thoroughly enjoyed all his other novels of this period. I’ve also researched much of the history of these English/French battles and the causes. The French were not innocent victims of English desire to dominate, they were attacking our southern coasts before The Hundred Years War began. Had we not retaliated, and I’m not necessarily saying without satisfaction, the French would not have left us in peace. They wanted England. As with all wars it was to do with power and greed, not just English aggression. The Anglosaxons just did the job better. We had well trained archers, bless them, in our armies which were very often well out numbered by the, to my way of thinking, arrogant, over confident French. I, for one, am proud of our history. It’s who we are. So much more I could say but to refuse to read this series based on your misinformation is sad.

  • I’m really intrigued by the premise of this novel, but I haven’t read any of Cornwall’s other works. I’m glad you mentioned this one is still accessible. I’ll likely start with it and then explore his backlist.
    nomadreader´s last post …book review: In Need of a Good Wife by Kelly O’Connor McNees

    • MikeA

      Do read Cornwell’s Grail Quest series. I wasn’t a great reader of historic fiction, particularly of this period, before I read the three previous books but I was afterwards. I particularly loved the audio book series read by Sean Barrett. He truly is one of the great narrators I think. His accents and are particularly memorable and bring the books to life. Very good reads with an excellent narrator is my opinion. I am just starting to read 1356 and am encouraged by the reviews that I have read so far.

  • Adam C

    I have read almost all of Cornwell’s novels, starting with the Sharpe series, which got me hooked. I have also read all of The Grail Quest series, so am familiar with all the major characters in 1356. One thing, I think, that defines a good historical novel, is the amount one can learn about the period it’s set in, and Cornwell’s novels are a treasure trove of information! I have now nearly 100 pages into 1356, and loving it. I find myself wincing at some of the more graphical depictions of violence (like the castration of a noble early on in the book), but that merely helps to create the flavour of the times – which were, indeed, brutally violent!