Tag Archives: France

“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.



“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman

11 Nov

“When Christ and His Saints Slept,” by Sharon Kay Penman (901p)

When Christ and His Saints Slept is one of American author Sharon Kay Penman’s masterpiece novels of the Middle Ages. Written in 1994, this one tells the story of a bleak time in English history as rival claimants to the throne of England, Stephen of Blois and Empress Maude, fought a needless war for two decades that devastated England. It was the time of England’s history called The Anarchy.

It is 1120, and the son of King Henry I of England, William, is readying to return to England on the brand new royal vessel, the ill-fated White Ship. The seas are rough and the passengers drunk, too drunk to spot the sudden appearance of a reef in the ocean. It tears a hole in the boat and sinks, destroyed and drowning all of its passengers, including the heir to the throne. With no male heir, Henry I is forced to name his daughter, the widowed Empress Maude, as successor and forces his barons to swear allegiance to Maude. But none of Henry’s vassals wanted a woman ruling in heir own right, least of all one married to the hated Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. And so on Henry I’s death one of his barons breaks his agreement and claims the throne himself, making Stephen of Blois the fourth King of England since the conquest. Maude’s allies are outraged and immediately declared war on Stephen, but they were otherwise hemmed into Geoffrey’s Anjou, left with attempted sieges and small fights in Normandy while Stephen controls England. Stephen tries to consolidate his kingdom but the blunders which would characterise his reign surface soon after, eventually forcing the public support of Maude by her powerful half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. Eventually, the war tide favoured Maude enough for her to leave her exile in Anjou and return to England, ready to claim her rightful crown.

When Stephen is betrayed by his cowardly allies at the first pitched battle of the war, the Battle of Lincoln, and captured Maude is able to make her formal claim and hurries across country to be crowned. But she, like Stephen, makes far too many mistakes so quickly and quickly offsets the people of London. Londoners unite to scare Maude and her supporters out of the city before she could be officially crowned. The Queen consort, Matilda, rallies and begins a campaign to free her husband – eventually doing so after the destruction of Winchester, capturing Robert of Gloucester. Robert was traded for Stephen’s freedom, so the King returned to the throne, and Maude would never be Queen.

The two then fight a bloody, desperate and at times pointless war across the length and breadth of England with Maude narrowly escaping capture at Oxford, her legendary escape in the snow to Wallingford brought to life. Intermittent between this is the de facto protagonist, the fictional Ranulf, and his sorry tale of lost love and redemption as he seeks to find his happiness in the world while being one of Maude’s key supporters. After six years of getting nowhere, her dream of being Queen ends when Robert of Gloucester dies, and Maude decides to return to Anjou a defeated woman leaving her campaign in England to the rest of her allies and the Earl of Chester, as Stephen lurched from one political mistake to another, his kingship held together by his brilliance on the battlefield.

The final part of the novel deals with the rise of the future Henry II into adulthood. Together with his entertaining father, Geoffrey, the Angevins sweep across Normandy and completely take it out of Stephen’s control – not only pacifying the Norman barons but then becoming Duke of Normandy in his own right. The young Henry is a brilliant character – confident, intelligent, quick-witted, polite yet commanding. Henry surges to the fore of Anglo-French politics and becomes such a headache for Stephen and Louis VII that they try anything to get an advantage over the rampant Angevins. While on a visit to Paris Henry meets his future bridge, the teasing beauty Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France. Henry conspires with her to force her divorce from Louis and the two fall in love, secretly marrying weeks after Eleanor’s divorce from Louis. Henry was on top of the world then and continued to storm through the campaigning season with victory after victory, not even the sudden death of Geoffrey could keep him down for long. Eventually, Henry returns to England to reignite the Angevin cause in the sickly England, and beats Stephen across the length and breadth of the country. When Eustace, Stephen’s son and heir, suddenly dies, Henry forces Stephen’s hand and gets himself named as the heir to the throne, ending the bloody war at long last. At novels end, Henry Fitz Empress, Duke of Normandy and Count of Anjou, becomes King of England as Henry II and the Plantagenet dynasty was born.

Compared to a lot of historical fiction readers, I’m a very late comer to Sharon Kay Penman’s books. Everything I have heard about them indicates the very tip of excellence in this genre … and I totally see why. This was just superb. Superb writing, superb characters, superb plot devices, and superb dialogue. The latter is particularly true. One of the things I noticed is that most of the story is told in the dialogue, as in it moves from event to event in the dialogue. I kind of imagine each chapter as a short play and the various characters lay out their lives like that. It is quite different from a lot of the things I read where the story moves from various action scene to another, but that did not deter from the reading experience at all. Instead of seeing castles under siege and torrid fighting, you hear about it, and it is left up to your imagination to picture it. I liked that.

The risk of having a novel mainly confined to dialogue is the characters rather morph into one and become the same person. But this is not the case in When Christ and His Saints Slept. All the characters have their own voices and their own defined yet easily recognisable personalities. You know it is Robert when caution and planning is spoken of, you know it is Stephen when chivalry and doing the right thing is spoken of, and you know it is Maude when it is a quick tongue and an impatience with the world around her. I enjoyed these recognisable personalities a lot with characters properly brought to life. Particularly I liked Geoffrey of Anjou, so often over-shadowed by his illustrious son. I felt pity for Stephen, he seemed like a nice person but never suited for rule, and I enjoyed reading so much about what is probably England’s most forgotten monarch. The only character I particularly didn’t enjoy as much was the fictional Ranulf – I felt him to be a little too perfect, you know? He seems to say and do everything right, and I found him to be a little on the nauseating side at times, and would have preferred him to have a little more chinks in his armour like some of his real contemporaries, people who could not be any more flawed if they tried. But he is an exception, and the rest of them are brilliantly developed and constructed people with a very clear voice that beam off the page.

At 901 pages this is one of the meatiest books I have ever read. I think only War and Peace is longer but I made my way through it reasonably fast. It took me a little longer than it should have but that is more because I stupidly chose to begin reading it in the middle of writing a couple of essays, so I went a couple of days without reading. For blokes who have reservations about historical fiction written by woman with a fear that it might be too mushy with romance (hey, there are some), fear not, for there is little of that. It is a rollercoaster ride of ambition, treachery and politics set against the backdrop of the turbulent 12th century, one of the most important in English history. Through Maude, the fictional Ranulf, Stephen, Robert, Geoffrey and Henry the twenty year civil war of The Anarchy unfolds in a truly excellent way, told in a style that is guaranteed to captivate any reader. Despite the length it is easy to read and very simple to understand with a style of dialogue that resonates in this century as well as one 900 years ago. It is very much worth taking the time to read this fantastic novel.


“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester

25 Oct

“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower,” by C.S. Forester (299p)
1793, the eve of the Napoleonic Wars, and Midshipman Horatio Hornblower receives his first command …

After the great success of the first five novels about fictitious Napoleonic-era seaman Horatio Hornblower in the 1930s and 1940s, British author the late C.S. Forester (1899-1966) set about going back to the beginning of his heroes life in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Written as the sixth book in 1950, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is the first in the series chronologically where the young Hornblower begins his navy career, finding out he actually isn’t too bad at this naval caper.

The novel is essentially ten short stories put together, roughly in a continuous flow, beginning a short time after the last one ended. So, the first story is naturally Hornblower’s first ever assignment on a ship, the HMS Justinian. Hornblower hates life aboard the Justinian and dreads waking up every morning, and his depression becomes so severe he contrives an elaborate way to commit suicide – by challenging a much older tyrannical midshipman to a duel after a game of cards. But when the duel is a draw Hornblower transfers to HMS Indefatigable as Britain declares war on Revolutionary France. On his new ship Hornblower takes part in a capture of a French cargo ship, but when he is given command of it he forgets to make necessary repairs and the ship sinks. But that, an offence that could be a court-martial offence, is forgotten when Hornblower burns down a ship he had been taken prisoner on and rescued by the Indefatigable. Later, he commands the jolly boat in a mission to capture another French ship, but is deeply affected when a man left behind is killed as he loses the jolly boat.

Hornblower then takes part in his first land mission, albeit in the capacity as a translator for the commander of a French Royalist attempting to land an invasion in the Vendée as the locals revolt. It is unsuccessful and the revolutionary force repels them back to the waiting British ships, and Hornblower is deeply troubled by the sight of a guillotine in action. He develops a darkened view of the revolution because of it. The war then takes a turn against Britain as Spain and France sign a peace treaty, making Spain Britain’s enemy as well, and Hornblower leads a dangerous attack on a Spanish galley ship near Gibraltar. This act of bravery leads to him being made acting lieutenant but a surprise attack by the Spanish sees the sudden cancellation of his lieutenancy exam.

Hornblower then later travels to North Africa to purchase a supply of livestock, but more catastrophe befalls him when there is a fear of a plague outbreak (the last time the plague affected Europeans was sometime in the early 18th century) and he is forced to mill about in the Strait of Gibraltar for three weeks. The final short story of Mr. Midshipman Hornblower takes him to Gibraltar where he is told he is to take command of a French prize ship and transport a Duchess back to England. Predictably, the dangerous waters of the Atlantic turn against Hornblower and he is taken prisoner by Spain. He spends two years in captivity in the town of Ferrol but sees an opportunity to do … something, and with the permission of his captors, sets off into choppy sea to rescue stranded Spanish sailors. This act of bravery sees him eventually released by Spain and promoted to lieutenant by the admiralty.

The series is one of the most influential ever written – this is the inspiration of fellow historical fiction giants Sharpe and Aubrey-Maturin, Hemingway lavishes it with praise, Gene Rodenberry based leading characters on Star Trek off Hornblower, not to mention plenty of other British productions that draw inspiration from the series. With that in mind, Mr. Midshipman Hornblower is certainly an interesting read, but different because it has no set plot other than these are some things that happened to Hornblower in his first year or so in the Navy. One of the main things a reader will notice about this is that there really aren’t any supporting characters to take on their personality. They are just names who drop in and out of the novel in each chapter/short story; they do not really have an identity, meaning that it is almost solely about Hornblower. And that is a good thing because it works superbly within the framework of the novel. It makes Hornblower and all of his various problems with himself all the more central to the story, so the reader is immersed in his world and spared being troubled by minor characters dominating the narrative.

Another area where Forester as an author succeeds with these novels is his skill in the narrative. One of the difficult things with Naval fiction is all the technical terms that are used, words the average reader will have no idea of. Forester is very good at explaining the meaning of something in understandable terms without it disrupting the story – he, unlike Patrick O’Brian, assumes the reader does not know how it all works, much like a young Hornblower would not, so it becomes readable and easy to follow once you get used to it.

As far as recommendations go, well, it’s hard. Naval fiction is obviously not for everyone. It can be a mouthful, and at times difficult to comprehend and understand with all the outdated technical terms. But at the same time the Hornblower novels manage to fly in the face of all the technical blustering and keep the reader entertained with a truly magnificent leading character as its star. That is why these novels remain so popular over half a century after their publication, and for that reason, if you have an interest in reading a novel of life at sea in the 18th and 19th century as Europe fought France, these are the best place to start.


“Heretic,” by Bernard Cornwell

28 Sep

“Heretic,” Bernard Cornwell (448p)

The final novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Grail Quest trilogy is Heretic. Set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War, archer Thomas of Hookton reaches the conclusion of his quest to find the mysterious Holy Grail and unlock one of history’s greatest mysteries, unaware of the great peril making its way across Europe.

It the closing stages of the Edwardian-phase of the Hundred Years War. England has captured Calais and destroyed the French army. Thomas, with a small band of archers and his friend Robbie Douglas, is sent to Gascony with the aim of hunting down his cousin Guy Vexille and finally unlocking all the secrets and the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. After securing a small Gascon town and turning into a garrison, Thomas’ plans to discover the Grail from his cousin are ruined when he saves the life of, and then curiously falls in love with, a young girl named Genevieve condemned to be burned at the stake for witchcraft.

But saving her life has dire consequences for Thomas. The rumour of the girl being a witch, in an age of religious mysticism, costs him his friendship with Robbie after an argument about her living with them. The Scotsman then has his head turned by Vexille and his lot, joining them to fight against Thomas. The church is not pleased by Genevieve’s survival either, and when Thomas turns down their request to release the girl back to into their custody he is excommunicated – I am no religious man, but I can imagine the impact that would have had a on a commoner in those days. This plunges Thomas into a depression as he is outlawed and forced to go on the run again, still clinging onto the hope he can find the Grail.

Vexille and the Church, in league with each other to find the Grail, send out mercenaries to capture and kill Thomas. He eludes them in a narrow fight at a monastery and then somewhat predictably finds allies in some Gascon separatists, who help him return to the garrison. There, Thomas and Vexille finally fight each other inside the garrison as it is battered by a French force attempting to recapture the town. Thomas kills Vexille at long last but only notices at the last minute as men everywhere begin falling ill during the siege. They vomit, sores ooze pus and blood and they suffer severe fever … the Black Death had arrived. Thomas escapes and makes it back to England with Robbie and Genevieve, but the information he bludgeoned out of Vexille in their fight triggers a light bulb in his head and he finally realises the true location of the Holy Grail. He just chooses to keep it to himself instead.

The action in Heretic is almost entirely fictional. The opening passages did take place, but otherwise the rest of the action is fictional, yet still retains the excitement and page turning goodness of the previous two. For those reasons it is a fine and easy read that flows and comes together superbly. It is never dull and at a touch over 350 pages only took me a couple of days to work through.

Heretic has a fairly simple and obvious plot outcome. It is the third in the trilogy, so at some stage the true location of the Holy Grail would come into play and forms the basis of the story’s conclusion. But that is the main problem with Heretic – the outcome is rushed and comes across as like “oh! Here it was after all!” The ending was just disappointing, I think. After a well written siege of the garrison, whose name I have forgotten and can’t be bothered looking up, and the superb plot twist of the arrival of the Black Death, I had been expecting a little more fireworks with the ending. It comes across like Cornwell just wrote it as an afterthought when he had a deadline to meet and put no little extra effort into creating a definitive ending and just left it as it was. The ending alone spoiled it a tad for me, but it should turn nobody off from an otherwise fine novel.


“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.


“Harlequin,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Sep

“Harlequin,” by Bernard Cornwell (484p)

In the first of Bernard Cornwell’s series set during the Hundred Years War, Harlequin (The Archer’s Tale in the US), takes fictional archer Thomas of Hookton to France on a quest to defeat the French but also to one day find the Holy Grail. The first in a series of three, Harlequin is set on the backdrop of the Battle of Crécy.

At the start of the novel Thomas is a young man, mid-to-late teens, living in the fictional seaside English village of Hookton as the illegitimate son of a priest and his mistress. Thomas is learned; he can read and write and has studied the Bible, he can speak French and Latin. He seems destined for the church despite professing his love of archery, England’s national sport at the time (on Edward III’s orders). But all is not well in Hookton, and at Easter of 1342 raiders from Normandy led by Sir Guillaume d’Evecque and a mystery man named The Harlequin come and attack the village, killing Thomas’ father, and stealing a valuable family treasure – the lance of St. George. Thomas vows to get revenge on the attackers one day and recover the lance.

It is now 1346 and Thomas has joined up with a band of archers in the employ of the Earl of Northampton sieging La Roche-Derrien. We are introduced a typical Cornwell heroine in the form of Jeanette, Countess d’Armorica, beautiful yet dangerous as she tries and protects her city. Eventually the English find their way in and Jeanette runs afoul of the knight Sir Simon Jekyll when she rejects his overtures of sex. Thomas is called to defend Jeanette and when he learns of the attempted rape he plans revenge on Jekyll, but fails, and so he must leave La Roche-Derrien if he wants to escape with his life.

Thomas and Jeanette go on the run across Brittany and into Normandy, not helped when Jeanette’s pleas for help is turned down and then some by the Duke of Brittany. While they had been fugitives Edward III had led the main English army into Normandy and began laying siege to Caen. When Caen falls, Jeanette attaches herself to the Prince of Wales and leaves Thomas. Thomas has now spied the herald of Sir Guillaume and tries to kill him, but fails, and is then caught unawares by Sir Simon Jekyll and left to hang. Thomas is rescued by a girl named Eleanor, who is Sir Guillaume’s daughter, and she nurses the two of them back to health. They become friends and Sir Guillaume educates Thomas on his French ancestry – it seems that Thomas and the man called The Halequin have a lot more in common than he realised.

Harlequin moves into its conclusion after the siege of Caen with the English army successfully crossing the ford at Blanchetaque after a fierce fight, and then fighting the decisive battle at Crécy when the English longbow causes such devastation. As it descends into hand-to-hand fighting Thomas encounters Jekyll and The Harlequin on the battlefield and kills neither; Sir Guillaume tries to do the same and only manages to kill Jekyll, and The Harlequin escapes. Thomas manages to recover the Lance of St. George on the body strewn battlefield.

Harlequin, in many ways, is a typical Bernard Cornwell novel. Once you have read one you can pretty much predict how the rest will go. They are told at a quick-pace, full of action where the hero joins battle countless times, falls in and out of love, runs afoul of somebody important and then reconciles. Harlequin is no different in that respect either. Thomas, the protagonist, is a bit different from Cornwell’s other heroes. He is a more wholesome character, I think, than Sharpe. He can read and write and, curiously, has a fairly firm faith in the Christian God that most Cornwell characters reject. In that way it is a refreshing change. Thomas is also different because he lacks that cloak of invincibility that Sharpe has, he does not have the all-powerful warrior feel that Derfel or Uhtred have either. As a fighter, at least in Harlequin, Thomas is defenceless without his bow and lacks that unstoppable warrior feel that his other heroes have in spades.

That is probably why of all of Cornwell’s novels, the Grail Quest series is my least favourite. I still enjoyed it immensely. It is a pleasant and easy going read. Harlequin a top notch adventure story with twists and turns that keep the pages flowing, and the villains are as good as always with a wonderful heroin. The cameo of Edward III and the Prince of Wales was a good few passages, too. But it is Thomas himself that probably lets it down, as he just does not hold a candle to other Cornwell creations. But as far as fast-paced adventures stories in the Middle Ages go this is a great, entertaining read, and I recommend any fan of this sort of thing to read it.


“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski

21 Sep

“1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow,” by Adam Zamoyski (656p)

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow is a 2005 non-fiction historical study of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 by Polish historian Adam Zamoyski. Using a combination of contemporary diaries, later historical studies and interpretations from drawings by Johann Adam Klien and Faber de Faur Zamoyski constructs a descriptive analysis that tells the story of France’s invasion of Russia, both proceeding and during 1812.

The first part of the novel provides the lead-in and sets the tone for the events of 1812. Zamoyski spends a chapter detailing the face of the European landscape at the beginning of the second decade with Napoleon virtually as its master. At the end of 1811 Napoleon controlled the French lands and made himself King of Italy, his puppet-states in Germany (the Confederation of the Rhine), his brother-in-law Joachim Murat as King of Naples and Sicily, and his brother older Joseph as King of Spain. He had also married Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria making his father-in-law Emperor Francis II, thus dragging Austria into an uneasy alliance by marriage. Lastly, he had entangled Russia in a treaty signed at Tilsit in 1807 after he had crushed them in the previous three years, and he had beaten the only other continental nation, Prussia, so badly it was only the intervention of Alexander I that kept Prussia on the map. Meanwhile, Britain had been hemmed into the southern half of Portugal and posed next-to-no threat to Napoleon’s control over Central Europe.

Zamoyski then moves onto the second half of his background to 1812 by analysing the complicated relationship between France and Russia. Throughout, it is placated by Napoleon’s wish for peace with Russia but also his demands of them to adhere to the Continental System, a policy devised by Napoleon to damage Britain economically by blocking access to ports and making British trade redundant. Russia, of course, imported many goods from Britain as she only had limited agricultural options and as a result they blatantly ignored the Continental System, enduring Napoleon’s wrath as a result. Zamoyski hypothesises of Napoleon’s reasons for invasion, but Zamoyski believes the most likely reason for it was that he had always intended to formally put Russia under his thumb through conquest than any well-meaning treaty. Intermittent between this is the goings on at the Russian court and Alexander’s position amongst the nobility, where Zamoyski details Alexander’s tenuous grip on the throne. It had only been a few years since Alexander played his part in the assassination of his father, Paul I, and coup d’état to snatch the throne. As a result he had a less than frosty relationship with his boyars, of whom Alexander was largely dependent on to draft troops.

Nevertheless, why would Napoleon fight two wars on two campaigns, so far apart from each other at the opposite ends of Europe? He was already well entrenched in the guerrilla war in Spain, although he had been conspicuous by his absent, leaving it up to Masséna and Soult to command the campaign. But this question, of why Napoleon would fight two major campaigns simultaneously, is the main question Zamoyski asks (the second being the question of Poland) as the narrative rumbles along leading up to his mobilisation of le Grande Armée in spring of 1812.

Napoleon assembles the largest army to date to march on Russia. Le Grande Armée consisted of an estimated 610,000 soldiers and officers drawn from France, Italy, Germany, the Duchy of Warsaw and a nominal corps from Austria and Prussia that had been required by treaty and marriage. Through Napoleon’s adjutant, Armand Caulaincourt, Zamoyski constructs the early weeks of the campaign as the French stormed through modern Lithuania and Belarus and into Russia itself more or less unopposed. Russia’s tactics to fall back deeper and deeper into Russia were already at work.

When not discussing and analysing the French advance into Russia, Zamoyski, through Caulaincourt, poses the question how much of an affect did Napoleon’s ailing health have on the campaign? Throughout, Napoleon was uncharacteristically undeceive and unable to make a clear aim for the campaign. Likewise, Zamoyski shifts back to the goings-on at the Russian court and the demise of Barclay de Tolly and his replacement with the popular charismatic yet incompetent Mikhail Kutuzov. From there, come the battles that led to Borodino, which of course did irreparable damage to le Grande Armée as they collapsed into a Moscow on fire.

France is devastated as Moscow burns. It had been Napoleon’s goal to capture the city, with its obvious large food stocks for the coming winter, and billet there until winter had passed. Russia had other plans and instead set Moscow ablaze, burning about a third of the city (mostly comprised of wooden buildings) completely and rendering it about 70% destroyed as a whole. Napoleon demanded Russia’s defeat but Alexander and Kutuzov did not even give it a thought – why would they? They were safe behind Moscow; or in Alexander’s case, in his imperial capital at St. Petersburg, hundreds of miles to the north in safety. But Moscow was lost for both sides. Gone was food and housing and the French soldiers went on les maraud. Churches and other places of business were ransacked, homes of the nobles were looted, women were raped and gangs of Russian men roamed the city, looking for a fight with the largely drunk soldiers. Zamoyski describes les maraud in intricate detail, owed to a painting by an unknown artist depicting French soldiers storming a house and looting and raping the inhabitants as well as the diary kept by Caulaincourt. They spend around three weeks in Moscow as Napoleon is forced to lick his wounds and come up with an escape plan.

But Napoleon has no plan other than to run for the Prussian border, some 900km west. Here is the greatest triumph of 1812 with Zamoyski’s brilliantly detailed description of France’s flight from Moscow. Winter was already setting in, food was scarce, uniforms and equipment were falling apart, and they were constantly harangued by Cossacks out for revenge. The retreat to the border is not for the weak of stomach as every bloody gory horrible detail is described. This includes one particular story of a woman breastfeeding her newborn that had frozen to death, but the child was still living and crying, so a soldier pulled the child off the frozen woman’s breast ripping the breast clean off the woman’s body. The hopelessness of the retreat is brought to life as le Grande Armée dies by the thousand as Napoleon flees ahead of the main pact and hurries back to Paris, but eventually they make it to the Prussian border after the terrifying crossing of the Berezina, where even more die after falling into the freezing water when the bridge boats collapse. As the last men cross the border, with Marshal Ney one of the final to cross, le Grande Armée had been reduced from 610,000 soldiers to barely 25,000. So too had Napoleon’s myth died.

1812 truly is an excellent, detailed and historically accurate historical study of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign into Russia. If there is one criticism of this novel to bad had is that it mostly tells the story from the French perspective, there being more French sources than Russian available, but the Russian side does get plenty of attention regardless. But otherwise, it is a superb read, not least of all because Zamoyski’s writing style is easy on the mind and eyes.

The descriptive style flows from page-to-page and you really do get wrapped up in the narrative. I would almost say Zamoyski’s easy style, use of diaries and quotes makes it like reading fiction. While he gets down to the nuts and bolts of the campaign it never gets boring, like many non-fiction novels can do, and leaves you constantly wanting more. It’s engrossing, comprehensive, detailed and brilliantly written. If you have some interest in Napoleon, Russian history or the Napoleonic wars I just cannot recommend it any higher, it is a top notch read.