Book Talk: 'Agincourt' by Bernard Cornwell - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

Book Talk: 'Agincourt' by Bernard Cornwell

Alexander Wallace returns to the Hundred Years' War.
I know that all of my recommendations in my book talk column have been science fiction or fantasy of some sort thus far; it would be good of us, though, to diversify our reading a tad. I do take care to be sure that I do read the occasional historical fiction, partially to see the antecedents behind so much genre fiction and partially to see that I’m getting many different influences in my writing.

So much fantasy is based off of a theme park version of the European Middle Ages, the time when feudalism was the lay of the land and where armored knights fought each other with swords. With that in mind, let us diverge for a bit to visit an approximation of the real Middle Ages, in all their blood and mud and rain. More specifically, we shall discuss Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt (or Azincourt, depending on the market), a book that climaxes at the titular battle and involves more generally the Hundred Years’ War.
There seems to be a certain consensus on the internet that Europeans were only brutal to their colonial subjects on other continents. The truth of the matter is that long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue (and worked many Taino to death as slaves) Europeans were perfectly willing to slaughter each other wholesale for unnecessary reasons. The Spanish fought a war for eighty years to rule the Netherlands. Most of the continent fought a war for thirty years to rule Germany. And the English fought a war for over a hundred years to rule parts of France.

One of the things that strikes me about this book is how messy the combat is. Armor does not shine here, and battle is not gallant. It is a stinky, messy thing. You can almost smell the viscera of rotting corpses, especially after the battle ends.

Cornwell made an interesting choice by making his protagonist an archer, rather than a swordsman or knight. Those two would be more standard main characters in fantasy, but at the actual battle of Agincourt the English archers were perhaps the most hailed of all involved. That man is Nicholas Hook, a poor conscript from the English countryside who is thrown into something beyond his comprehension. Hook is no saint, but neither is he a demon; he is pleasantly moral at times, and one of his first scenes is him trying to save a woman from the clutches of a malevolent priest.

Another way this book handles war well is that Cornwell is not afraid to kill characters, even those that you have gotten to know well. It’s a painful thing whenever a named character meets their end. The viscerality of the violence makes it all the more powerful as sword enters torso or arrow enters eye socket.

Cornwell doesn’t just thrill you; he can also scare the hell out of you. There’s an incredible sequence in the beginning set in the town of Soissons as the French pillage it; our leading man Hook has to survive in a situation that could have him killed in seconds. Cornwell at that point has characterized Hook enough for you to feel every little bit of his terror. It’s a scene I’ll remember for a long time.

George R. R. Martin has said that the best writer of action scenes he has ever encountered is Bernard Cornwell. With praise like that, fellow science fiction and fantasy readers, why not give something different a shot? Here, within the pages of Agincourt, Cornwell will take you somewhere you never could have imagined, with the benefit that it was all too real.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad