“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.