Tag Archives: Thomas of Hookton

“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.