“Vagabond,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Sep

“Vagabond,” by Bernard Cornwell (384p)

Vagabond is the second novel in Bernard Cornwell’s 2000 trilogy, the Grail Quest, set during the Hundred Years War about fictional archer Thomas of Hookton’s quest to one day find the Holy Grail. The two battles covered in Vagabond are the Battle of Neville’s Cross and Les Espagnols sur Mer.

Thomas is back in England after Crécy, sent back to learn more about his father’s involvement in possessing the Holy Grail by Edward III himself. His investigations take him to the English-Scottish border areas just as the opportunistic Scots are launching another invasion into England, forcing Thomas to pick up his bow and land a hand. While he fights to protect England he sends Eleanor, who is pregnant with his child, and their companion Father Hobbe to Durham Cathedral. At Durham Eleanor and Father Hobbe meet an evil Dominican friar and the man that was revealed to be The Harlequin in the previous novel, Guy Vexille, Thomas’ cousin. They are both killed by Vexille and the Scots lose the battle with David II being captured, but Thomas is grief stricken when he finds Eleanor and Father Hobbe dead. He returns to Hookton with Robbie Douglas, a captured Scottish noble, and receives more information about the Grail. He now believes it might exist after all.

A letter from Sir Guillaume calls Thomas and Robbie to France to help the embittered knight, trapped in his castle after being outlawed by Philip VI. Despite being so badly out-numbered Thomas uses his intelligence to blow up a magazine of gun powder that had been stored for use with early cannon. Sir Guillaume is freed from his castle and they return to La Roche-Derrien, where Jeanette makes a return. Her son has been taken by the Duke of Brittany and Thomas devises a daring plan to rescue him, only to be betrayed by some Flemish mercenaries, and is taken capture by the Dominican friar. He is tortured for days under the guise of the inquisition but unable to extract any information from him, the friar lets Thomas go.

Vagabond culminates in a fictional siege at La Roche-Derrien in a desperate fight. The English garrison is outmanned and has no supporting forces as the main army is hundreds of miles away, so they are left to themselves. Thomas, rehabilitated but still crippled by the inquisitors, joins the defenders in the fight. Scores on either side die but eventually, as in most cases in Cornwell novels, the English come out on top and drive the French away from the town. Thomas suffers more loss as his friend, Will Skeat, is killed but this resolves Thomas to finally hunt down the Grail and his cousin Guy Vexille.

One of the main differences between Harlequin and Vagabond is the shift in plot direction. In the first one the Holy Grail itself is only a minor part of the story and takes on the guise of a “what if?”, barely mentioned at all. But in Vagabond, and indeed in the final in the trilogy, Heretic, the Grail becomes the central focus of the story. This is a good change, though, because Harlequin lacked a definitive idea of where the story was going until the final few pages.

I liked Vagabond more than Harlequin. I liked that the story had progressed and gained a clear identity and purpose with the quest for the Holy Grail becoming the main focus of the plot. But, still, Thomas as a protagonist lets it down for me. He is still very much the same character of Harlequin and critically the believability is not there. At times he just seems weak and feeble and not someone scores of men would rally behind. But the story itself does not lose any of its entertainment factor and was every bit the good read Harlequin was, made better by a clearer defined plot, that made it into a good read all the same.

7.5/10.

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