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17 November, 2009

Bernard Cornwell, Agincourt (NaNoBloPo/NaSchoWriMo 16)

Cornwell, Bernard. Agincourt. (New York, HarperCollins: 2009)

There is a lot to like about Agincourt. The hero, Nicholas Hook, is appealing, the 15th C equivalent of Sharpe, Cornwell’s 18th C rifleman. He’s an outlaw, having made enemies at home in his village, and used his uncommon skill with the longbow to settle a longtime grudge. It is that skill with the longbow that rescues Hook, and sets him off on a journey that leads him through the siege of Soissons and up through the English victory at Agincourt. Nick is our man on the scene, not quite Everyman, for his skills put him in contact with some of the leading figures of the English army — including King Henry himself. Between battles, Nick finds himself repeatedly facing his old enemies from home, the Perrill brothers, who constantly scheme at his death, and that of Melisande, the Frenchwoman with whom he has fallen in love.

Melisande is the daughter of a French noble, rescued by Nick from certain rape and death at the fall of Soissons. This is one of many scenes that demonstrate to the reader that Hook is noble in heart, if not by blood. His nobility is in sharp contrast to many of the other soldiers, and especially to all of the Perrills and their father, the lecherous Sir Martin, a priest. Father Martin is an archetypical villain, a corrupt clergyman who uses his rank to sway the local justice system and whose tastes run to raping virgins, or at least women who seem pure in heart. Compared to Cornwell’s descriptions of the battles and the soldiers who fight in them, the constant threat of the Perrill family often seems contrived. The Perrill brothers and Father Martin serve as plot devices, giving Hook reasons to behave well, either by rescuing women from their clutches or by giving him the opportunity to extend his forgiveness, reminding us over and over that he is the better man.

In contrast, Cornwell’s story of the battles and the men who fought them are far more compelling. The descriptions are vivid and detailed, down to precise explanations of each piece of armor, weapon, and formation. Some are reminiscent of both Shakespeare and Keegan, but they are interesting and convincing nonetheless. In typical Cornwell fashion, he takes us to the heart of each battle. He starts with Soissons, where Hook adopts Ss. Crispin and Crispinian as his patrons after a vision in which Crispian speaks to him. The fall of that city and Hook’s flight with Melisande lead him to Calais, where he and Melisande are questioned, and taken back to England to report on the events at Soissons. In England, Hook meets the young king, who is impressed with the archer, although less for his skills than for his assertions that his patron saints speak to him. Cornwell’s Henry is pious and rather grim, traits that will explain some of his later actions. Hook is released into the service of Sir John Cornewaille and with Cornwaille’s archers makes the crossing to France with Henry’s fleet. Cornwell’s descriptions of the operation help the reader to understand what a massive undertaking the transport of troops was.

The action turns quickly to the siege of Harfleur, replete with the claustrophobic action in the tunnels dug to undermine the city, the frustration of the men, the dysentery that ran through the English camp. After the English victory, the drama intensifies as Nick’s younger brother, Michael, is accused of looting a church. As the army trudges back towards Calais, the tension mounts: *we* know that they will be forced to stand against the French, and *we* know that the French will vastly outnumber the English — just as *we* know that the English will win. This is one of Cornwell’s greatest strengths as a novelist: despite knowing the outcome, we want to see how it happens. He blends the familiar, like Henry’s anonymous pre-battle visit to the troops to check on their morale, with the less familiar details of armor, weaponry, battle formations, and the disposition of troops. With Hook as our eyes, we are there in the thick of things, trudging through the mud, watching the French cavalry get stuck in the mud and drown in it, often with the help of the English men-at-arms. As the battle winds down, and the English receive the order to kill the prisoners who are too many to guard, Cornwell brings us back to the story of Hook, Melisande, and the Perrills. He carefully engineers the deaths of the villains in ways that remove most of the culpability from our hero and his love. Evil deeds are repaid, Hook and Melisande are free to marry, and Hook can continue to climb the ranks in the king’s service well after the end of this book.

Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt is strong on detail and action, less so on characterization and dialogue. Still, it’s a fun read, and one that helps to bring the period to life, with close attention to detail and a potboiler of a plot that will hold most readers’ attention for the entire campaign.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 November, 2009 8:21 pm

    Aha, another historian who also enjoys historical fiction. We've been having some interesting discussions about that this week at my blog and at I started reading another Bernard Cornwell book a while ago, but put it down before I got to any of the battle scenes (it sounds like these are his forte). You've inspired me to give him another go.

  2. 18 November, 2009 10:14 pm

    Interesting review..encourages me to give "Agincourt" a look. We might meet Mr Hook on TV before too long, methinks.

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