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“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell

3 Mar

“Azincourt,” by Bernard Cornwell (453p)

Azincourt is a stand-alone novel by British author Bernard Cornwell. Published in 2009, Azincourt depicts the infamous Battle of Agincourt in 1415 of the Lancastrian Hundred Years War and the story of archer Nicholas Hook, a commoner with a dark past.

(plot summary from BernardCornwell.net)
Agincourt (Azincourt in French) is one of the most famous battles ever fought; the victory of a small, despised, sick and hungry army over an enemy that massively outnumbered it. Azincourt, the novel coming soon, tells the story of that small army; how it embarked from England confident of victory, but was beaten down and horribly weakened by the stubborn French defence of Harfleur. By the end of that siege common-sense dictated that the army sail for home, but Henry V was stubbornly convinced that God was on his side and insisted on marching from Harfleur to Calais to prove that he could defy the great French army that was gathering to crush him. He believed he could evade that army, but the march, like the siege, went disastrously wrong and the English were trapped and so forced to fight against an enemy that outnumbered them six to one. Azincourt is the tale of Nicholas Hook, an archer, who begins the novel by joining the garrison of Soissons, a city whose patron saints were Crispin and Crispinian. What happened at Soissons shocked all Christendom, but in the following year, on the feast day of Crispin and Crispinian, Hook finds himself in that small army trapped at Azincourt. The novel is the story of the archers who helped win a battle that has entered legend, but in truth is a tale, as Sir John Keegan says, ‘of slaughter-yard behaviour and outright atrocity’.

The story of Agincourt and Henry V’s army in northern France is told primarily through Nicholas Hook, an archer who escapes his enemies and a certain death sentence in England to seek his fortune and safety abroad. Hook is an interesting character, but not unlike most of Cornwell’s other heroes. You can clearly see the similarities between Hook and Sharpe, Uhtred, Derfel, and so forth. He has the same confidence, savagery in a fight, natural leadership, luck, and dare I say it, sex appeal as those characters have. But Hook is more than just a seemingly stock Cornwell character, and is his own man and stands alone as a protagonist. He is a complicated man and portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience, he tries to do the right and live life in the virtuous way seemingly expected of medieval men as followers of the church. Hook is also a violent, stuck in a long-lasting family feud with the Perrill family, and relishes the opportunities to exact his family’s revenge. He seemingly has no problem killing; and killing outside of battle, murdering. Parts of this generational feud shape Hook as the story goes on as well, indeed it was the conflict with the Perrill family and their ally, Sir Martin, which sends Hook to France in the first place.

As a character, I enjoyed Hook, and did not find too similar to Cornwell’s other heroes to become bothered by it and rather took in him for what he was. I found his personal battle with his conscience, something that is a theme of the story, to be quite interesting. Like I said, he was a man seemingly intent on doing good, but he enjoyed doing bad when he had to. I have no doubts if he was able to Hook would have murdered and destroyed the entire Perrill clan. On the other hand, he is a deeply religious man, yet seemed at odds with his faith, unable to make sense of the needless slaughter surrounding him and if his King’s cause was just. Hook allows the dead saints – fittingly Crispin and Crispinian – to speak to him and play a part in his battle with his conscience.

As is usually the case with Cornwell, the side characters are strong in their support of Hook. Cornwell writes Melisande as another complicated person with a dark past, and she is a fitting companion for Hook as the two mesh well. It’s a believable man/woman relationship. And of course, Cornwell laces the story with depictions of historical figures. Sir John Cornewaille, the famous knight, is a key part of the story and his prominence not only gives the story a consistent authority figure Hook can defer to, but also its light heartedness. Cornewaille is depicted as a brash knight unafraid to speak his mind and his rants and bouts of anger are actually rather comical than overly serious. There is also of course the King: Henry V. Henry, from what I know about him, is fairly accurately portrayed, and like Hook and the other side characters, is a pretty complicated man. Deeply religious and bound by his God, Henry is also a soldier’s king, known for willingly throwing himself into the fray and taking on all comers in battle. That aspect of Henry’s personality is never lost in the story. I think a lot of Henry’s dialogue and “screen time” is adapted from Shakespeare as well, and readers will be delighted to read the recounting of Henry’s pre-battle speech from Shakespeare ahead of the final battle.

Seasoned readers of Cornwell’s work will be accustomed to how his stories tend to go, and of course Azincourt follows all those which came before it. The fighting is savage and violent, told in near blood thirsty detail, and you are thrown into the Battle of Agincourt as if you were really there in 1415. The story of the archers’ plight and the hopelessness of the task they faced is never dumbed down or overlooked, he stresses just how monumental their task was: 5,000 archers and 1,000 men-at-arms and their king against the might of France and its 36,000 strong army. Not for a second is the difficulty and scope of their achievement not presented to the reader in a way that will make them not understand what happened, and appreciate it all the more. You get a great sense for what the men who drew these bows were like –ordinary people, tradesmen and journeymen the French held in contempt and fear. As for the rest of the novel, it is similar to most Cornwell work, but is still immensely enjoyable, and doubtlessly readers will find that same enjoyment I found taking in Nicholas Hook’s journey across France and redemption in England.

Azincourt is certainly recommendable. As a stand-alone novel it is great, and not encumbered by being a part of a long-running series, you can pick it up at any time. If you have read Cornwell in the past and enjoyed his stuff, but erred away from the long-running series then I think this is a novel you may enjoy. I certainly did, and found it to be one of his best for some time. It’s the perfect story for fans of action, adventure, violence, a little bit of romance and their heroes leading the way.

8.5/10.

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“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell

14 Jun

“The Burning Land,” by Bernard Cornwell (378p)

In the fifth installment of British author Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon stories, The Burning Land, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg continues his fight for Alfred of Wessex, bound by oath. It is 893 and the Danes are massing again, planning yet another invasion of the Saxon lands in their never ending dream of conquering England for themselves.

(plot summary from Wikipedia)
At Alfred’s behest, Uhtred delivers a message to Haesten that Wessex would pay a ransom for Haesten to leave. Alfred cannot attack Haesten, because another Dane, Harald Bloodhair, has attacked at Cent. Haesten and Alfred reach an accord, and Haesten leaves hostages and accepts missionaries. The Jarl even undergoes baptism. However, Uhtred knows that the hostages are fake and that if Harald defeats Alfred, Haesten will attack London. While travelling to meet Alfred, now free to lead an army against Harald, Uhtred captures Skade, Harald’s woman. Skade is a formidable fighter in her own right, and leads one of Harald’s war parties. She and her party are captured while raiding a Mercian village. However, Harald approaches Uhtred leading a line of Saxon captive women, and threatens to kill all of them if Skade is not returned to him. After he butchers one woman in front of her child, Uhtred releases Skade to him. Skade intones an ominous curse against Uhtred as she and Harold make their escape. Uhtred and his men, however, defeat Harald’s forces at Farnham, and again take Skade prisoner. Harald is severely wounded, but escapes to Torneie Island (Thorney Island). There, with few followers, he is able to use the island’s natural defences, and a palisade he builds to repel later attempts to defeat him. However, he is trapped there.

While celebrating the Saxon victory at Farnham, Uhtred is devastated by news that his beloved wife, Gisela, has died in childbirth, along with the child she bore. When Uhtred and Skade return to London, Alfred’s advisor, Brother Asser (whose dislike of Uhtred long predates this story) uses the mad brother Godwin to denounce Gisela’s name, ranting that Gisela was the devil’s whore, and has come back from the dead as Skade. Uhtred flies into a rage and kills Godwin, though he says that he only meant to silence him. Retreating back to his house, Uhtred’s old mentor, Father Boecca, tells him that Alfred has ordered Uhtred to pay a huge fine and swear an oath to Alfred’s son Edward the Æthling. Alfred holds Uhtred’s children as hostage to his terms, and places them in the custody of Æthelflaed, Alfred’s daughter and wife of Aelthelred, the ealdorman of Mercia. Furious, Uhtred reneges on his oath to Alfred and sails, with Skade, to his old friend Ragnar. Uhtred trusts Æthelflaed to protect his children.

Eager to use his newfound freedom and encouraged by Skade, Uhtred goes Viking. He sails to loot, kill and plunder Skirnir, Skade’s husband, and on the journey, he and Skade become lovers. After he defeats and kills Skirnir, however, he is disappointed when Skirnir’s treasure horde fails to meet his expectations. When Skade demands half of the horde as her share, Uhtred denies it to her. From that point on Skade becomes enemy to Uhtred. Sailing back to Ragnar’s fortress, Uhtred winters there. During that winter, Brida, Uhtred’s former lover who is now Ragnar’s wife, convinces Ragnar to attack Wessex alongside the other Northumbrian lords, Cnut and Sigrid. During the meeting, Haesten arrives and declares that he will attack Mercia. Haesten and Skade become infatuated with each other, and when Haesten leaves, Skade goes with him. Uhtred is caught in a conflict of loyalties, between the Danes with whom he was raised, and his oaths to Alfred and Æthelflaed. He also fears for his children’s safety, as they are in Mercia, in Æthelflaed’s custody. His indecision is broken when his friend, the Welshman Father Pyrlig arrives. Pyrlig reminds Uhtred that he has given his oath to serve Æthelflaed. Uhtred is reluctant at first, until Father Pyrlig tells him that “oaths made in love cannot be broken”.

Uhtred goes to serve Æthelflaed. He first has to rescue her from Lord Aldhem. Æthelred, Æthelflaed’s husband, wishes to divorce her, to break free of Alfred’s influence over Mercia. He directs Aldhem to have sex with Æthelflaed, either by seduction, or failing that, by force. Either act would make her an adulterer, allowing Æthelred to divorce her. Uhtred kills Aldhem, liberates Æthelflaed, and reunites with his children. He and Æthelflaed then go to Æthelred’s council, surprising him before the assembled Mercian lords. Warning of Haesten’s advance, Æthelflaed tries to win the Mercian lords to her side. She and Uhtred then wait at London for support. However, because Æthelred holds their purse-strings, none of the lords come, except for Lord Ælfwold. During this wait, Uhtred and Æthelflaed become lovers. Uhtred also learns that Alfred had advised Æthelflaed to use Uhtred’s oath to her to bring him back. Eventually, Edward Ætheling arrives, along with Alfred’s retainer and Uhtred’s friend Steapa, and an army of twelve hundred of Alfred’s best house troops. They also bear a message that Uhtred is to give his oath to Edward. Uhtred promptly refuses.

Thus reinforced, Uhtred marches ahead to Haesten’s two forts at Baemfleot (Benfleet), although Haesten is not there. Uhtred encounters and attacks a larger Danish force and is surrounded. He nearly loses the battle and his life, but is saved and the battle won by the timely arrival of Steapa and the rest of Alfred’s troops. They proceed to capture the first of the forts. Uhtred makes preparations for the next battle and begins teaching Edward how to lead from the front. Uhtred assaults the fort and scales the ditch, using sails with ropes sown into them to provide sure footing on the slippery ditch. He tries to use ladders to get up the wall, but the first assault fails. His second assault ultimately succeeds after Father Pyrlig throws specially prepared beehives onto the walls. The bees distract the defenders so that Uhtred’s force can scale the walls and capture the fort. In the hall Uhtred finds Skade and a horde of gold. Harald Bloodhair, crippled and vengeful over Skade’s betrayal with Haesten, suddenly appears, embraces Skade, and kills her at the same time. He then asks Uhtred to kill him. Uhtred does, then meets with Edward who says that he doesn’t need Uhtred’s oath as long as his sister has it. Uhtred and Æthelflaed then sail away from Baemfleot on the Thames.

I had been waiting for The Burning Land for some time, for this is one of my favourite series I have ever read. Partially because one of my relatives spent most of her retirement researching my family’s history and she researched that my family was one of the Danes that conquered northern England at this time, and I have ploughed through the first four in the series. So the excitement to read it was certainly high and I couldn’t wait for the paperback release in May. The Burning Land did not disappoint either – another fantastic addition to a great series of books by the prolific Cornwall. Uhtred’s story continues to weave its way across the turbulent early history of the land that would be England in its own special way. Uhtred is a much different man than the one from the first few novels. Now, as an adulthood, he is a shrewd calculated leader that commands Alfred’s war efforts against the Danes. As a character it has been a joy to see him grow – he is no longer reckless, or as reckless as he used to be, and his strategic moves involve a lot more thinking, planning and stealth. That’s fun to read, meaning that there is more to the action side of things in these books than merely a crash, bam, stab and slash Uhtred’s earlier fights where he used little-to-no finesse and deception.

Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed The Burning Land. Alfred of Wessex had two goals in life – the Christianisation of England and the unification of the petty English kingdoms1 under one king in a land free of pagans and Danes. That story was firmly continued in this novel as the Saxons went on the offensive against two huge Danish armies, once again destroying their power bases in the south and staving off any possibility of defeat. As a read, this is superb, and follows the (admittedly somewhat standard) Cornwell style of a cracking action-adventure tale with strong characters and story, ferocious enemies, newfound love and loss. The action is well told and helps to complete the tale of England’s oft forgotten past (why do people think English history begins in 1066?) by painting the picture of two of the most important battles in the Saxon-Danish war. But it’s also enjoyable for the evolution of Uhtred’s own story and his quest to capture the lands that belong to him by birth, and I think readers of the series will find that particularly enjoyable. As I have said before, I heartily recommend this series for anyone a fan of Cornwell, action-adventure and war-based historical fiction, pre-Norman English history and the Vikings. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

And so the wait for book six begins …

8.5/10.

1 these were Wessex (England’s south and south-west), Mercia (England’s midlands, west and London), East Anglia (England’s east) and Northumbria (the north to Scotland). Originally, Wessex (which eventually absorbed Sussex and Essex) was the land of Saxons, while Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria comprised of Angles and Jutes that joined the Saxons during the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain centuries before. At the time of The Burning Land Wessex was the only wholly Saxon kingdom, Mercia was divided by the Danes and Saxons and under Alfred’s control, while East Anglia and Northumbria were firmly Danish territories. The modern town of York evolved from the Danish Jorvik.

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell

16 Feb

“Sharpe’s Company,” by Bernard Cornwell (332p)

Richard Sharpe and the Siege of Badajoz, January-April 1812

The third novel he had ever written, and originally published in 1982, Sharpe’s Company continues the story of British Rifleman Richard Sharpe during the Napoleonic Wars. It is a new year, 1812, the most tumultuous year of the Napoleonic wars, and Britain is finally ready to march into Spain itself. Standing in its way were the twin fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and the monstrous, towering citadel of Badajoz, which the British must take if it were to drive France out of occupied Spain.

The story begins with the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo, which was the northern barrier into Spain. Sharpe and Harper lead an assault on the French and are apart of the party which successfully breaches into the city, overwhelming the French defenders and capturing Ciudad Rodrigo. Unfortunately, during the assault Sharpe’s commander and long-time friend Col. William Lawford is severely wounded when a mine is detonated, losing an arm and retires from his post as commander of the regiment. Sharpe, saddened by the lose of his friend, has new issues to worry about as Lawford’s departure meant a new colonel would arrive, and that also placed Sharpe’s captaincy (his gazette had yet to be confirmed) over the Light Company in severe jeopardy. It gets worse for Sharpe, though, when his old enemy, Obadiah Hakeswill makes his return. Hakeswill’s hatred of Sharpe and Sharpe’s of Hakeswill sees them soon feuding when Hakeswill makes his first attempts to wrap the Light Company around his fingers by attempting to rape Sharpe’s mistress and the mother of his child, Teresa Moreno.

Lawford’s replacement, Col. Windham, arrives into camp as Sharpe finished dealing with Hakeswill. With him is Sharpe’s replacement: Cap. Rymer. Sharpe is demoted back to lieutenant and placed in charge of the baggage train as the regiment digs trenches around Badajoz. While visiting the men the French attack but neither side is able to use its weapons due to the rain and it turns into a fight with shovels and spades, eventually seeing the French attackers run back to the city. But in Sharpe’s absence the baggage train had been ransacked – by Hakeswill – and the sergeant made his move against Harper, planting a prized possession of the colonel’s in Harper’s belongings. Harper is flogged sixty times as punishment and demoted to private, handing full control of the company to Hakeswill as Rymer is incapable of leadership.

As Britain prepares for its assault on Badajoz, Windham is charged with leading an expedition to blow up a section of the fortifications. Before the attack, Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, a gift from Sharpe, is taken from him by Hakeswill, as it is a non-regulation weapon. When the Light Company takes longer than expected Windham sends Sharpe to find out the cause of the delay. Sharpe arrives to see the Light Company doing nothing due to Rymer’s incompetence. Sharpe fires at a French sentry and decides to blow the wall himself. Riflemen give him cover fire as he attempts to light the fuse on the powder barrels and barrels explode, but the wall is too strong to be destroyed. As Sharpe falls back into the dam he is shot in the leg by Hakeswill, using Harper’s seven-barrelled gun, until being rescued by Harper.

Sharpe recovers from his wounds quickly enough but is dealt another blow by Windham – he is removed from the company all together under the pretence of allowing Rymer to gain control of the Light Company. Hakeswill continues to control the company, however, and soon sees to it that the Rifleman attached to the South Essex<sup>1</sup> are stripped of their honours, rifles and green jackets, and all returned to the level of redcoat privates. Sharpe intervenes and humiliates Hakeswill by pretending to shoot him with the discarded rifles, to which Hakeswill vows revenge by getting to Teresa, who is in Badajoz, before Sharpe does. Sharpe seemingly might not even be participating in the battle after Wellington picks his brain over the strength of the breach; the general refuses Sharpe’s request to lead the Forlorn Hope (called forlorn as it meant certain death, “somebody has to go first”) and instead will guide those men into position and falling back. Wellington explains his reason to Sharpe as he thinks Sharpe is too valuable otherwise sacrifice during an attack which will likely result in a heavy loss of life.

Sharpe nevertheless ignores Wellington’s order and finds his way back to the Light Company. Upon arrival he finds them devastated by cannon fire, Rymer dead and Windham attempting to lead the attack on the breach. Sharpe resumes leadership of the company and takes them over the breach. Captain Knowles, Sharpe’s old lieutenant, is the first into Badajoz and his men overrun the remaining French defenders and begin to break into homes, raping women and pillaging and destroying. Hakeswill had also managed to climb into Badajoz after conveniently disappearing during the siege, and armed with a bayonet and pistol he sets off in the direction of Teresa Moreno’s home. Knowles reached Teresa’s house first but Hakeswill, who had been following, climbed to the upstairs room where the baby Antonia is and as Knowles enters, Hakeswill shoots him. He then threatens to kill the baby unless Teresa has sex with him as Sharpe and Harper had fought their way across Badajoz. They meet Hakeswill face-to-face in Teresa’s bedroom, only wresting away the child and Teresa when Harper provokes Hakeswill’s madness, but the rogue sergeant escapes through a window, running off into the Spanish night as a deserter. Following the siege Harper is returned as a sergeant and the riflemen have their green jackets returned to them, and Sharpe is praised for his bravery and loyalty, now officially made a captain of his Light Company.

I liked Sharpe’s Company quite a lot. It is one of the Sharpe novels written before the series really took off, still in Cornwell’s infancy as a writer. Thus, like all the early Sharpe novels, it’s a simple story with an easy to follow plot. By no means is it a by the numbers adventure tale – which, unfortunately, some of the later Sharpe novels closer resemble – because in Sharpe’s Company, Cornwell began to properly expand the character and his world by introducing more side characters with their own backgrounds and roles to the story. Hakeswill represents this and would later become extended beyond just the one novel, becoming Cornwell’s favourite villain. Other developments to Sharpe’s character also include facing adversity from within the army, which I enjoyed as something different because at times Sharpe’s independence and free will of the norm is often taken to beyond believable lengths. In Sharpe’s Company he is often brought back down to earth and that’s an important aspect to any character’s development. So to is the emphasis on the bond Sharpe has with his men because such a bond is a crucial side to successful groups of men. Cornwell went to great lengths to explain how and why Sharpe has such a command of the Light Company, a change from the common mistrust and feelings of lack of support that he endured in the earlier novels.

Easy to read, Sharpe’s Company is certainly up there among my favourites in the Sharpe series. There is a certain rawness to the story and the feel of the novel itself that, I think, many fans of this genre and novels like this will find appealing. Obviously, if you had read the previous Sharpe’s there is no reason for you to stop as the remaining novels – the “original series” – are all fantastic. As I always say when reviewing Sharpe novels is if this review has interested you into reading the Sharpe series than go back to the start and read from there. While this novel would actually be great as a stand-alone anyway you would be really missing out on what is a truly fantastic historical fiction series by one of this generation’s great storytellers.

8.5/10.

“The Winter King,” by Bernard Cornwell

20 Jul

“The Winter King,” by Bernard Cornwell (512p)

The Winter King is the first in a trilogy of Bernard Cornwell’s take on the King Arthur legend. Cornwell’s telling of the King Arthur legend is a “historical” version, meaning he has placed it in the real world setting of post-Roman Britain in the second half of the fifth century. The Winter King is tells the story of Arthur’s return to Britain from exile and the brewing civil war between the petty kingdoms in the face of the impending Saxon invasion.

The lord Derfel is now old and serves the rest of his life as a monk, but once he was a captain and champion of Arthur’s Britain. He has been tasked by the Queen of Powys, Igraine, to write Arthur’s life story (under the guise of a translated gospel for the Saxons to trick the tyrannical Bishop Sansum, who despised Arthur and his paganism) for her and for the Britons as the invading Saxons creep ever closer. But the story begins years before that, when Derfel is a young lad training to be a warrior, while Arthur himself is living in exile in Armorica (modern Brittany). The High King Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and King of Dumnonia in his own right, had banished him there when the Crown Prince and heir Mordred was slain in battle against the Saxons and Uther held Arthur, his illegitimate son, responsible. The hopes of Dumnonia’s future fell to Mordred’s widow Norwenna, pregnant. She would give birth to a son but not the picture of strength and nobility Uther had been hoping for, but rather she gives birth to a disfigured crippled boy with a clubbed foot, named Mordred after his father. The child and mother were fostered at Merlin’s home Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury) under the care of Morgan, Arthur’s sister, where the young Derfel resides with Nimue. Merlin himself has not been seen in Britain for years.

Uther convenes the kings of Britain for a high council to establish the Dumnonian succession. The King of Powys does not attend and the King of Siluria arrives late. Uther makes it clear Mordred will succeed him and until he comes of age, three men (King Tewdric of Gwent, Owain the champion of Dumnonia, and Merlin) shall act as guardians. Morgan, acting for Merlin, declares he would only accept such a role of Arthur is also made a guardian, but Uther refuses and publically disowns Arthur. Soon after Uther dies and Mordred becomes King of Dumnonia, but the Britons quickly descend into civil war when Gorfyddyd of Powys attacks Gwent and the King of Siluria betrays his pledge to Uther and attacks Ynys Wydren in a bid to become High King. Arthur, however, returns to Britain and saves the besieged Dumnonians and defeats Gundleus, the Silurian king, taking him prisoner. Arthur wishes to unite the British kingdoms against the Saxons and agrees a peace treaty with Powys, frees Gundleus to his throne and agrees to marry Ceinwyn, Gorfyddyd’s beautiful daughter. But Arthur shatters the peace when he falls in love with Guinevere, secretly marrying her and rejecting Ceinwyn, plunging Britain back into a war with itself.

In the mean time, Derfel had grown into a man and a warrior in Arthur’s service, being given the name “Cadarn”, which meant the mighty. He is sent across the channel to Armorica to assist King Ban of Benoic in his war against the Franks. Linking up with Arthur’s cousin Culhwch, he is taken to Ynys Trebes (modern Mont. St-Michel) to meet King Ban and his heir, Lancelot, to whom Derfel takes an immediate dislike to. Lancelot is rude, arrogant and cowardly, and Derfel almost kills him following an insult. Lancelot and Derfel would be enemies for life. Escorted out of Ynys Trebes, he gains a friend and ally in Galahad (Lancelot’s illegitimate half-brother) who joins Derfel’s small army. Derfel spends three years defending Ban’s lands from the Franks and, while often successful, it is ultimately useless as the sheer number of Franks overwhelms them, and pushes them right back to Ynys Trebes itself. After eight months under siege Ynys Trebes eventually falls to the Franks. In the destruction of the city, to which the cowardly Lancelot is the first to escape, Derfel uncovers the true identity of the embittered priest that lived in the city: Merlin. Merlin escapes with Galahad and Derfel and he returns to Britain, before quickly disappearing again. Lancelot had arrived back in Britain first, however, and intended to disgrace Derfel by holding him responsible for the fall of Ynys Trebes and the death of Ban, but Derfel challenges Lancelot to a duel. It is only Arthur’s intervention and stubborn faith in the good of people that prevents a full scale fight between the two.

While Derfel was absent Nimue, to whom he had been linked together by a blood-oath, had been declared mad and banished to the Isle of the Dead. Derfel rescues her and the two becomes lovers for a short time. Arthur’s war against Powys had continued to rage in Derfel’s absence and was bleeding the Britons dry, so Arthur planned to end it for good. He had to also ensure a peace with the Saxons and so taxes the Christian monasteries and pagan temples heavily, an act the Christians never forgave him for. He manages to buy a season of peace from Ælle, the self-styled Bretwalda and information on how to capture the Powys stronghold of Ratae (modern Leicester). To learn of Gorfyddyd’s intentions Arthur sends Galahad and Derfel to meet with him under a flag of truce, and there Derfel himself falls utterly in love with Ceinwyn – however, his beloved had been betrothed to Gundleus by Gorfyddyd to secure an alliance while Arthur wanted her to marry Lancelot. Ceinwyn wanted neither and just wanted to be left alone, and softly rejects Derfel’s pledge of love, but accepts his oath to protect her freedom. Arthur is left to attack Gorfyddyd and Gundleus alone when Tewdric of Gwent refuses to commit to an alliance and remains neutral, claiming his only responsibility is to perverse the life of Mordred and not to wage war against the other kingdoms. Arthur is left with the only option of fighting Gorfyddyd and Gundleus alone.

Marching in the night, Derfel and the main army arrive at Lugg Vale while Arthur’s horsemen destroy the vanguard. Arthur switches armour with Derfel as well in a ploy to trick the Powysian army. Despite having the high ground the Dumnonians are out-numbered and forced uphill, and Arthur’s plans to out manoeuvre the Powys army with a sudden cavalry charge fails, leaving things at a loss. But the face of the battle changes dramatically when the Irish, paid off by Gorfyddyd, switch sides, and smash the Powsyian army, saving Arthur and killing Gorfyddyd. His son, the far more pragmatic and sensible, Cuneglas, is now King of Powys and immediately calls for a halt in he fighting and offers Arthur the promise of peace and an alliance against the next Saxon invasion, bringing an end to the destructive civil war and establishing Arthur as the preeminent lord in Britain. The story is continued in Enemy of God.

If the number of reviews wasn’t obvious, I am a massive Bernard Cornwell fan. I have loved almost everything he has written, but the Warlord Chronicles are easily my favourite of all his novels after originally reading them in 2007. The Winter King is an engrossing and gripping read that will pull the reader right in. Post-Roman Britain is a complex world with much of the raw facts lost to history, yet nothing in this feels as though it doesn’t belong. He has properly depicted what life in post-Roman Britain would have been like. It is a largely lawless society with no proper order and a handful of noble lords from small petty kingdoms vying to be the High King and succeed the Romans, all the while in a society facing imminent destruction from the Saxons while also witnessing the beginning of the slow transformation from paganism to Christianity. If Arthur ever existed (and I believe he did), I have always been one of the people that believed this is the Britain he lived in. And so, with very few refutable facts to go by, Cornwell probably made most of it up, but the end product is a completely believable world that, from what I understand, is pretty much exactly how we know post-Roman Britain to be.

All the known favourites from the Arthurian story are included in the story. But what I like most is the way he has tweaked it, to give his version of Arthur an original voice and depiction. Arthur is as you would expect him to be but his supporting cast is excellent, particularly in the latter two books, and rather quite original. Lancelot, usually cast as Arthur’s greatest knight and most loyal subject, is completely transformed into a snivelling little shit of a man that everyone can see but Arthur, and Cornwell’s skill as a writer makes you dislike him. This is pretty rare from me as I usually end up loving the villains (I wanted Voldemort to “win” and kill Harry Potter), but the way he made Lancelot such an unappealing character turned out to be one of the best parts. Characterisation is important and this novels delivers on that front superbly, and I think most will enjoy the somewhat newer depictions of a number of old favourites.

On the whole, The Winter King is a bit unlike the rest of Cornwell’s novels, which are much more precise and less sprawling in their nature. Rather, The Winter King adds a lot more politics and intrigue to its story and attempts to explain the power struggles by the many kings and wannabe kings of the land. It is nothing like Sharpe either, which tend to be more “episodic” whereas this is just one long story. You would have to read The Winter King before moving on to the next two parts of the trilogy, but I think that would be a wise thing to do anyway. It is a great story to begin with – who doesn’t like King Arthur? – but this really is an original telling, written by one of the great action writers of the last thirty years. It is not simply a novel of war, but a novel of a lost society still trying to find its way and survive, combining the real and the imagined to be told by a man who saw it all. Highly recommended.

9.5/10.

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell

23 Jan

“Sharpe’s Battle,” by Bernard Cornwell
Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, May 1811 (387p)

Sharpe’s Battle is the twelfth book in the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell. Written in 1995 at the behest of the production company behind the Sharpe television series (and thus out of order from the original series), it was ordered by them to provide added filler in the series and is dedicated to Sean Bean. It tells the story of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro in May of 1811.

Sharpe and the rest of the South Essex had been tasked to do dull patrolling and scouting on the fringes of the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, a wild and lawless land where neither side had any control. The villages are deserted and people are scarce, but there is a reason for that – the detached French battalion of Brigade Loup, led by the ruthless Brigadier Guy Loup. Sharpe encounters Loup in a recently ravaged village, capturing two of his men caught raping teenage girls. Sharpe, without authorisation, orders them to be executed. Despite Loup’s pleas to hand the men over and allow him to discipline them, Sharpe carries out the executions by firing squad and makes an enemy of Loup off the bat, the fur skin covered Frenchmen swearing vengeance on Sharpe and his men. Back at army headquarters, Sharpe is tasked by Wellington to take temporary command of a Spanish guards regiment sent from the exiled King Ferdinand, the Real Compañía Irlandesa, and train them into proper troops. But that isn’t really the plan. Suspicion is rife that the guard is full of French spies and so Sharpe’s real task is to treat them so mercilessly and make them so miserable that the guardsmen resort to desertion rather than real army life.

The Real Companies Irlandesa is in fact a guard made up of Irish Catholic exiles (most of whom were Spanish born by several generations) and hopelessly inadequate for the task. Many desert on the first few nights while Sharpe butts heads with their insufferable commander, a womaniser drunkard who seeks glory by suicide named Lord Kiely. The fears of French spies are made true, as well, by the arrival of Doña Juanita de Elía, who is Kiely’s lover but also in the employ of the French spymaster, Pierre Ducos (Sharpe would meet him later). Sharpe’s attempts to organise the Real Companies Irlandesa prove nightmarish with desertion rife, useless weapons and inept commanders, but he opts to defy Wellington and Hogan and tries to make a unit out of them after all. Things start to improve until an American newspaper surfaces in the camp, proclaiming brutalities committed by British garrison soldiers in Dublin, which threatened to cause a mutiny among the Irish troops until Sharpe dismisses it as folly. Soon after, a Portuguese infantry battalion arrives at the fort and the following night, Loup attacks the fort. The Spanish and British hole up in the barracks, but the Portuguese infantry are butchered. Sharpe fears they are all doomed, but a massive explosion kills dozens of Loup’s attackers and he departs from the fort quickly. Sharpe and Harper discover that Tom Garrard, an old friend of Sharpe’s in Portuguese service, blew up ammunition carts, causing the explosion, and sacrificing himself in the process.

The Spanish demand an inquiry into the assault and Sharpe and Runciman are set up as a political sacrifice. To avoid this fate, Sharpe attacks Loup’s hideout, but Loup’s Battalion is missing because he has been tasked to join Marshal Andre Masséna, on the move to relieve the besieged fortress of Almeida and on a collision course with the Viscount of Wellington. Meanwhile, Lord Kiely has killed himself in disgrace and the true saboteur among the Real Compañía Irlandesa is revealed as Father Sarsfield, a close friend of Wolfe Tone. Sharpe is then set to administrative duties to guard the ammunition carts and is essentially barred from participating in the coming battle, but he still finds himself involved anyway and links up with “Black Bob” Crauford and the Light Division, finding himself at the summit of the battle where he enacts his revenge on Loup while Wellington wins narrowly his battle. With Loup dead and Masséna defeated there is to be no court of inquiry against Sharpe, leaving him exonerated and back in the good graces of Wellington’s army.

I did not mind the television version – which differs in its conclusion after the first attack by Loup – and I did not mind the novel version of Sharpe’s Battle either. However, it is far from the best in the series and I immediately got the impression Cornwell was writing within parameters. I am sure the production company, who made the request for it to be written, had some set ideas of what they wanted Cornwell to write and thus provide them with a basis of the story. Much of the dialogue from the film is taken straight from the novel. It is little wonder it is dedicated to Sean Bean because the dialogue in the novel was written for Sean Bean’s Richard Sharpe, not Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe that appears in the first series. That is often the main criticism levelled at the second series of Sharpe novels, that it is Sean Bean’s Sharpe in written form, and I can see where the character has changed, particularly because this was only written to be made into a movie. Mostly the change is in the dialogue because Sharpe never says “bloody this!” and “bloody that” every few sentences in, for instance, Sharpe’s Eagle, he doesn’t give inspirational speeches, and he is never that cocksure about himself around superiors and blue bloods out of the field. One of Sharpe’s most defining characteristics is his self criticism and immediate demur response to those above him, yet in the novel Sharpe brazenly talks in a way that would probably see him lose his commission in Sharpe’s Eagle. Simply because Sean Bean is allowed to do as such in the films.

As it is, the novel is fine, but it does have a bit of a “well okay” feeling to it at times. In the first half of the novel, before the producers changed the ending, I knew what would happen as I had already seen the film. No matter, I still enjoyed it enough. The action is what one can expect from Cornwell and the bloody and gritty battle of Fuentes de Oñoro makes for a captivating read in its own right, particularly since it is almost wholly told without Sharpe present. However, much of the business with the Real Compañía Irlandesa was often annoying and unnecessary, not to mention implausible – Sharpe even says as much. Just how on earth can an American newspaper be able to report on goings on in Ireland scarcely a month after they had happened and have a printed copy floating among the ranks in Spain? I didn’t get it, and even the most uneducated soldier would have realised it was a forgery. I would be willing to bet money, however, that that was a request from the production team and not something of Bernard Cornwell’s creation as he is far more inventive than that.

I doubt I would ever read Sharpe’s Battle again unless it takes me on a whim. Like I said, it is not a bad novel by any means. It is just a tad on the ho hum side. There were parts I really did enjoy and there were parts that I could have skipped. So should you read it? Well, it depends. If you are working your way through the series, like I am, then I guess it is probably the thing to do. But if you are a casual reader with no interest in reading the lot then don’t bother, Cornwell has written far better books than this one and it would be a shame to spoil your opinion of him.

6.5/10.

“Sword Song,” by Bernard Cornwell

1 Nov

“Sword Song,” by Bernard Cornwell (360p)

The most recent novel in Bernard Cornwell’s current series, the Saxon Stories, is Sword Song. Written in 2007, this fourth in the series takes fictional protagonist Uhtred of Bebbanburg yet again away form his homeland of Northumbria to the future capital of England, London, while Alfred the Great begins his quest to unite the English kingdoms and free the country of its Danish invaders, in the year 888.

London is a city in a unique situation in 888: it belongs to neither Alfred nor the Danes, for the city straddles both the Wessex, East Anglian and Mercian borders, but officially falls under the jurisdiction of Mercia. But Mercia is a kingdom of two halves where the Danes control the north while Saxons loyal to Alfred have the south. It is obviously in the interests of both sides to secure the largest city in the country and Uhtred is Alfred’s man. But the Danes also want Uhtred on their side, for he is a man with a great reputation across England. Uhtred’s nemesis Haesten returns with a trick of a message from beyond the grave and Uhtred is partially swayed because his loyalty to Alfred is quite thin, so Uhtred allows Haesten to introduce him to a pair of Norse brothers, Sigefrid and Erik, with the same ambition of making Mercia theirs. He seems to be falling for the idea of the Norsemen until they force an old friend of Uhtred’s into a fight to the death, and Uhtred leaves with much to ponder.

His oath to Alfred is called upon again as Alfred asks him to formally take back London into Saxon Mercian hands again; hands connected to the arm of his disliked cousin Æthelred. Uhtred’s surprise attack by boat catches the city garrison unawares and the Danes inside become wedged between Uhtred’s army inside the city and Æthelred’s Mercian fyrd coming the opposite way. Sigefrid, the Norse leader, is left permanently injured when Alfred’s bastard son Osferth leaps off the city wall and lands on top of him, crippling the Norseman terribly. With London back in Saxon hands again the Danes return to the safety of East Anglia. After a few months of quietness, Æthelred begins to get ambitious in his bid to completely control Mercia. He launches a sea raid on the Danes hideout which goes well until Æthelred becomes a little too ambitious and the Danes strikeback, capturing the prized asset of Æthelflæd – not only is she Æthelred’s wife but also the daughter of Alfred.

Uhtred is then sent on behalf of Alfred to buy back his daughter’s freedom at whatever cost. When he returns to the camp of the Danes he learns something very interesting about the King’s daughter, that she had fallen in love with Erik, and so Uhtred tries to arrange a dangerously deceptive plot to free Æthelflæd and allow her to run away with Erik with neither Alfred, Sigefrid or any of his oathsworn men knowing. But his attempts to free Æthelflæd quietly into the night go awry and a fierce battle breaks out in the sea and on marshland between Saxon and Dane. They fight on boats rammed into each other, on marshland and in the water. In the mayhem of a fight with no idea of who was fighting who, somehow, Uhtred’s men manage to come out on top and rescue Æthelflæd and crucially they also destroy one more enemy in the way of Alfred’s dream of creating a peaceful, Christian and lawful England free of outside Danish invaders.

As it is stated in the author note at the end, Sword Song is almost entirely fictional because it covers a few years of relative harmony between the Saxons and Danes. I think the main point of the novel is to show Uhtred in a new light as a grown up mature adult whose life has more to it than just being at the centre of a shield wall. He learns to govern, he learns how to play politician and he learns how to suffer grievances without immediately resorting to violence. In an ironic way, he becomes more of what Alfred would prefer to see in his nobles. But at the same time Uhtred is still every bit the brave, fearless and dangerous killer he was as a teenager. He is just a little wiser and smarter now, perhaps those two years on the slave ship weren’t so bad for him after all?

I liked Sword Song quite a bit. It follows the same trend of the other three with the trademark trappings of a Bernard Cornwell novel – lots of dashing and perilous action, strong characterisation, a fiendish villain and a big fight at the end. It ticks all those boxes and makes for a nice, quick and easy read that shouldn’t take more than a few enjoyable days. In addition, like The Lords of the North, some fans will be a tad disappointed that Alfred is often conspicuous by his absent. But that is also the point of it, too, because making Uhtred in effect Governor of London would mean he has some degree of autonomous freedom and the king is bound to leave him alone for periods of time. Alfred’s aim was to unite England and the real point of Sword Song is to begin that unofficial unification of Wessex and Mercia with Alfred’s people at the top. The slow process of creating England had properly begun during this book and will really take shape in the next one. It is just a shame I have to wait until 2010 to read it …

8/10.

“The Lords of the North,” by Bernard Cornwell

30 Oct

“The Lords of the North,” by Bernard Cornwell (377p)

The Lords of the North is the third novel in Bernard Cornwell’s newest series, the Saxon Stories, about a fictitious displaced lord sworn to fight for Alfred the Great in the great struggle against the Danes of 9th century England. Beginning where The Pale Horseman finished, this third edition in a planned eight or nine part series takes place from 878 to 881.

In the southern lands, Saxon and Dane are at peace again after the bloody fight at Edington. Guthrum, the Danish King of East Anglia, has even converted to Christianity to make sure Wessex under its pious king Alfred will not break the peace. With peace assured, Uhtred finally frees himself from Alfred’s chafing Wessex court and returns to Northumbria to begin his bid to reclaim his lost birth-right, the impressive fortress of Bebbanburg and his title as the Earldorman of that fortress. Arriving in Eoferwic (modern York), he is surprised to find out that the city has been taken back by Saxons, and he helps Danish civilians escape any reprisals against them by the victorious Saxons. The rest of England is relatively stable: Wessex under the steady hand of Alfred the Great, East Anglia under the now subjugated Guthrum and Mercia split in co-existing peaceful halves along Saxon-Danish lines. Northumbria, though, is nothing more than a series of warring towns and fortresses with differing lords vying for complete control of the kingdom.

Uhtred soon encounters his childhood enemy, Sven the One-Eyed, who terrorises the Northumbrian peasantry as his father is the Lord of Dunholm (modern Durham). Uhtred dreams up an attack on Sven, pretending to be a supernatural rider dressed in black with unworldly abilities with the sword. He humiliates Sven and scares him off but also frees a Danish lord claiming to be the rightful King of Northumbria, Guthred. Guthred convinces Uhtred he is indeed the King of Northumbria and Uhtred becomes his chief advisor and helps Guthred establish a powerbase across the southern half of Northumbria. He also falls in love with Guthred’s sister, Gisela, but their romance comes to a crushing halt when Uhtred is betrayed by Guthred, his head being sold to his treacherous uncle Ælfric and Danish lord Ivar Ivarrsson (son of Ivar the Boneless) with the help of monks. Guthred sees Uhtred cast onto a slave ship as a rower, his fate left unknown.

Uhtred spends two years on the slave ship and sees a world outside of England for the first time. He goes to the far north seas and sees an island covered in ice (Iceland, I imagine) and then to continental Europe, spending a winter in Jutland where the Danes that hadn’t come to England now live. The slave ship, which also functions as a merchantman, returns to East Anglia in 871 and Uhtred thinks himself doomed when the slave ship is stormed by a vengeful Sven the One-Eyed. But Uhtred is suddenly saved by a ship commanded by Ragnar, paid by Alfred the Great to rescue Uhtred from his captivity. Uhtred returns to Northumbria with a vengeance and takes out his revenge on Guthred and his co-conspirators who sold out to Ælfric. He seems destined to return to Wessex, though, with no future to be found in Northumbria and no chance of taking back Bebbanburg until he and Ragnar learn that Kjartan, the man responsible for Ragnar the Elder’s death, has sent his men out from the fortress of Dunholm to attack Guthred in Eowferic, meaning he is weakened.

They then discover that Thyra, Ragnar’s younger sister, had been held captive there and tortured by Kjartan and Sven. So to rescue her and take their blood-feud revenge on Kjartan the two launch a daring attack on the fortress, only narrowly escaping with Thyra but ultimately defeating Kjartan and Sven. But while Uhtred and Ragnar had been busy assaulting Dunholm Ivar Ivarrsson had marched south again from the very north of Northumbria with his army. Ivar was attempting to snatch the crown of Northumbria from under the feet of an absent of Guthred, but his audacious bid ended up being scuppered in a showdown with Uhtred.

I find it hard to review The Lords of the North for a few reasons. I certainly enjoyed the novel and flew through it in no time. I liked the plot for this third edition in the Saxon Stories and enjoyed seeing Uhtred return to the wild north of England. I liked the politics of it all and really was surprised when Uhtred had been thrown into the hands of a slave trader – I certainly didn’t see that coming. But for some reason the ending of the novel made me feel a little … eh, is how I’d describe it. It just felt a little rushed and convenient in the way it was executed, and I rather did think the way Sven was defeated was a bit rubbish. Maybe Cornwell had a deadline to meet? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, the ending felt like it could have been a little more thrilling and spectacular.

The ending is about the only complaint I have from the novel. As I said, I really did like it for the most part, and heartily recommend those who enjoy Cornwell’s novels or the previous two in the series to read it as it is a great and easy read. It is full of action, the plot is quite good with lots of twists and surprise turns, and the scenery is very evocative. Lastly, as I mentioned in the The Pale Horseman review, much of Alfred’s brilliant kingship often goes missing because of the first person narrative, but in this one the proper subtlety of his workings in the fractured England come to the fore, and you will marvel at the way Cornwell works that in – it was some very good writing. The slightly disappointing conclusion aside, this is a fantastic book.

8/10.