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Book review: Bernard Cornwell's 1356

Novel triumphs as historical fiction

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For those who like historical fiction, Bernard Cornwell reigns as a one-man treasure trove, spanning the Dark Ages to the Civil War and beyond.

He's one of the rare popular novelists who not only churns out novels at a rapid clip, he also makes sure they're of high quality. That enviable streak continues with his latest book, 1356, a renewal for the main character in his Grail Quest series. Don't let that last note worry you: The book is a stand-alone but takes on additional texture if you read any of the Grail Quest novels, sequentially or not.

The star of the series is Thomas of Hookton, an excommunicated archer-for-hire who, in three previous adventures, fought his way across England and beyond, seeking vengeance on raiders from Normandy and encountering plenty more obstacles. The Earl of Northampton is Thomas' liege lord, but he allows ample room for his expert archer and a band of mercenaries known as the Hellequin to take on profitable free-lance work between assignments for the earl.

When readers return to the company of Thomas of Hookton in 1356, he and his merry marauders are capturing an escaped damsel on behalf of her cuckolded husband, who happens to be a wealthy French count. Soon enough, though, the earl puts Thomas to work in search of a sword that may or may not be a hallowed blade used by Saint Peter. And, as Cornwell always does, he soon weaves the fictional events into actual history — in this case, the Battle of Poitiers, a largely forgotten but heroic triumph for the British over the French during the Hundred Years' War.

Thomas is a skilled archer, a gifted battle strategist and, for a man of his time, progressive. He questions much about the motives and actions of the religious establishment, which makes it all the richer when he find himself at odds with Pope Innocent VI's Catholic church, particularly a powerful but Machiavellian French cardinal hoping to become the next pontiff.

Of the latter, Thomas tells a friend, "You'd make a better pope. Hell, I would. That cow would."

Getting the details right without getting bogged down, and while keeping the narrative flowing, demands considerable skill. Cornwell hits the bull's-eye in his new novel, putting Thomas on a perilous path that includes helping the Prince of Wales as the vastly outmanned British face King Jean and the French Army.

Blunt, tough language conveys the horrors of war.

"The sound of the charge striking home was like butchers' cleavers hitting carcasses," Cornwell writes. "Men screamed. Some threw down swords and held their hands out in mute surrender."

Later, in another battle, he sets the scene with muscular prose worthy of its subject.

"Blades crashed on shields. Axes and maces slashed down. Lead-weighted steel crumpled helmets, shattered skulls, forced blood and brains to spurt through split metal, and men fell and in falling made obstacles, and other men tripped on them."

Any questions as to verisimilitude? Didn't think so.

The author leavens the carnage with occasional gusts of humor, as when the count who hired Thomas to reclaim his adulterous wife hears that Thomas might seek legal remedy in dispute over the count's payment.

"Lawyers!" the count tells an aide with a chuckle. "Then the quarrel won't be settled in our lifetime."

The author tucks plenty of history into his adventure, expounding on the specifics of weaponry and armor amid the bloodbaths that color much of the novel.

Cornwell, 69, was born in London and spent the first half of his life in England. He came to the United States in 1980, the result of his marriage to an American. For many years, he and his wife have lived on Cape Cod, but they now also have a Carolinas connection, spending part of the year in Charleston.

Perhaps a Lowcountry novel is in his future?

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