Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review: 1356

I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s 1356, so I’m jumping ahead about nine centuries this week in my series on medieval fiction to allow for a review of yet another great work by one of my all-time favorite authors.
"Go with God, but fight like the Devil!"
1356 is the fourth book in Cornwell’s Grail Quest series set during The Hundred Years’ War. The series’ protagonist, the English archer Thomas of Hookton, is now a knight known throughout France as le Bâtard, the commander of a fierce band of English longbowmen called the Hellequin. Like the other books in this series, Thomas is set on a quest to find a religious artifact. This time it’s a sword called la Malice – the sword that Saint Peter used in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Black Friars are preaching that whoever possesses the sword will win the war between England and France, so Thomas’ lord, the earl of Northampton, sends Thomas and his Hellequin to find it before the French can.

One of the best things about Cornwell’s novels are the villains, and 1356 has a colorful cast of characters opposing Thomas’ quest. These include a thoroughly malevolent priest called Father Calade and Cardinal Bessières, one of the villains from Book 3 (Heretic) who believes finding la Malice will help him become the next pope. There is also an über chivalrous French knight named Roland de Verrec who becomes lured into the cardinal’s service, as well as Thomas’ old sidekick, the Scotsman Robbie Douglas, who now serves his uncle fighting alongside the king of France.

Genevieve, the heroine from Heretic, is now Thomas’ wife and the mother of their son, and those two characters play significant roles in the story, especially in the novel’s most intense scene set in a French castle. There is also a charming scene in the first third of the book where Thomas learns some key information about la Malice from an old nun who is also a former countess. Cornwell’s portrayal of the nun and her amusing dialogue reminded me why he remains my favorite author. This scene also offers clues to the minor religious mystery that’s embedded in the plot.

The famous battle of 1356 – the Battle of Poitiers, for which the book is named – is the setting for the novel’s climax, but the battle plays a lesser role in this story than in Cornwell’s Agincourt. Edward, the Black Prince of England, and King Jean le Bon of France are important supporting characters, and their battle at Poitiers is masterfully written, but the conflict between Thomas and the cardinal over la Malice dominates this story. Overall, 1356 is yet another great novel from Bernard Cornwell, and a worthy edition to one of his most engaging series. I highly recommend it!


Bill said...

I completely agree with your review of 1356, and Cornwell in general, Joe.

Joseph Finley said...

Thanks for the comment, Bill! I was re-reading portions of Enemy of God today, and a quote on the cover from The Washington Post put it best about Bernard Cornwell: "Perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today." I could not agree more!

Bill said...

Another thing I love about Bernard is that his website allows average readers to ask questions that he always answers. That's so unusual for a big time author. Some of them I'd love to correspond with and have no way to do so.

Joseph Finley said...

Bill - I didn't know that, but it sounds fantastic. I also agree that Bernard Cornwell has an impressive website.