Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Archer's Tale

The Archer's Tale: Grail Quest #1
By Bernard Cornwell

Before I get to the book, I have something to announce:

Turns out I won an award. First a jar of jam at a bake sale when I was 11, now this!

The good people over at Bibliomania (if you haven't been over that way, you really should. Fantastic book blog) have given me something called the Leibster Award. Liebster is a German word for beloved. The award is given to beloved blogs with under 200 followers. These blogs are meant to be "the best kept secrets" out there. 

I am sincerely flattered that someone dropped by and thought to bestow anything on this here little blog. Can't say I much like the little heart on the Award Badge, but the sentiment is wonderful.

From here I am supposed to pass the award on, so to speak. I am asked to present this award to up to five other blogs with less than 200 followers. Unfortunately, the good people over at Bibliomania bestowed this award on many of the blogs I would have otherwise honored. All except one, so I have the great honor of presenting a Leibster Award to:

Literati Reflections

OK, back to our regularly scheduled program.

I like Bernard Cornwell because I like historical fiction. I have read a two of his novels over the past two years (Azincourt and The Last Kingdom) and while I have not fallen head over heels into his numerous series, I really appreciate the historical accuracy and detail that he crams into his work, especially his ability to make Medieval Europe come to life. Medieval Europe is one of the most misunderstood eras in Western history and Cornwell goes a long way toward clearing up a lot of misconceptions.

The Archer's Tale (or Harlequin as my copy is called, because it's from England) is the first novel in Cornwell's Grail Quest series. The series centers around the, well, you can figure that out. This particular novel centers on Thomas, the son of a (suspiciously randy) priest in a tiny village on the south coast of England. When the French sack and raze the village and take off with the church's vaunted holy relic (The Lance of St. George), Thomas is inconsolable and trundles off in pursuit.

Along the way, he becomes an archer in King Edward's invading army (these are the early days of the Hundred Year's War and England is laying waste to Brittany, Gascony, Normandy and Flanders). He runs afoul of the English gentry, beds a French noblewoman, gets hanged, learns his true ancestry from a mystical Jewish physician and a dark secret about the stole lance and its association with the holiest of holy relics: The Holy Grail. It all seems like a little much for a small town archer, but you have to suspend your disbelief a little bit, right? 

A little. But not too much. For me, Grail lore can be tricky. It makes for great adventure stories (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and classic comedy (Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail) but when it is discussed with a certain degree of seriousness, writers tend to lose me. It's gone, people. Gone. Disintegrated. It is no more! (That is, if it even existed in the first place). Besides, virtually every single relic on the planet could simply be (and most likely is) a random tooth or hair or splinter of wood some Crusader picked off a battlefield in the Holy Land, brought back to Shit-In-The-Woods, France and declared that it was the molar, follicle or shield of St. Paul or St. Thomas or Christ himself. It's a ridiculous industry based in fakery and inanity that could only have existed in a the religious vice grip that was Medeival Europe. And don't even get me started on Dan Brown's nonsense from The Da Vinci Code.

So I was a little apprehensive with Cornwell incorporating Grail lore in what was otherwise a fairly accurate account of the High Middle Ages. I enjoyed reading about the fear and carnage that the longbow inflicted on the French army, a military innovation every bit as game-changing as the atomic bomb would be almost 700 years later (and the ineptitude of Genoese "guns,"among the first ever used in European battles. Lots of noise, zero effect). I enjoyed the discussion on the insanity surrounding of holy relics and was vindicated to learn that many people, including people within the church understood how absurd these morbid trinkets were. I reveled in  the talk of heresies and was enthralled in the way Cornwell kept Thomas in the thick of major historical events such as The Battle of Caen, the Battle of Blanchetaque and the famously decisive Battle of Crecy. That's the sort of stuff I sign up for when I read Cornwell.

But the Grail stuff bores me. It's all a bunch of fanciful nonsense and how an archer gets mixed up in it all seems contrived and silly. Perhaps the later books in the series tie it up a little neater, but I found that this novel held up well without all the grail crap. It just seemed to get more absurd as the book went on. Every time it came up I half expected a dwarf or an albino to go on a rant about the Templars or the Rosicrucians and invoke the power of the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch (I'm only half joking).

Mercifully, these episodes are short and far between. For the most part, Cornwell sticks to the narrative build-up to the Battle of Crecy. It is interesting to hear the personalities of the two Kings. Edward from England is a staunch, battle-hardened and stoic warrior bent on the expansion of his kingdom while King Philip of France, leader of the Europe's largest army, is shackled by nerves, indecision and superstition. The way these leaders take to the filed and command their forces is fascinating. In the hands of a lessen novelist, it could have been a disappointing climax, but Cornwell handles it adeptly. 

Much like another of Cornwell's novels, Azincourt, his account of the actual battle is so spectacular I can almost smell the blood and agony of dying soldiers and horses. He is able to pinpoint exact moves, almost down to the man, as to why the battle swung in one direction or another. I'm not usually a big fan of battle scenes in books. Most writers can't do it (they move too fast to keep straight). But Cornwell is a master of the craft. The way he describes the fog of war is sublime.  There isn't another writer out there that does it as well as Cornwell and if you haven't read one of his battle scenes, you are truly missing a great literary experience. In fact, if he isn't already, he should be given an award for Battle Writing.

Perhaps the Schlacht Award?


Pocketful of Books said...

I have never read a Cornwell book but you have made me want to! I believe my parents have some so some yoinking may be taking place in the near future.

Where are you in the world that you can't get much access to English books? Are you part of the Random Acts of Kindness thingy? http://booksoulmates.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/feature-how-big-is-your-rak.html

If you have a mailing address you should be able to take part! I feel sorry for anyone with limited book access! :-P x

Bibliomania said...

I definitely agree with you about the heart on the award icon. If I had my way, we'd sport award buttons with thrones made out of swords.

We should get on that...

Ryan said...

@Pocketful of Books: I live in Taiwan, on the east coast, in a small town. The closest bookstore is in Taipei, three hours north by train. I go there about three times a year. I do have a Kindle and Amazon can deliver, so it's not the end of the world, but it's not always easy either.

@Bibliomania: I'm cool with that.

Jonathan Wilhoit said...

I had this big long comment typed out and then lost the damn thing when I tried to publish it. So now instead of retyping (or trying to remember the entirety of it), I'm going to give you the short version of it. So here goes:

And now I must read every bit of Cornwell's bibliography. Well, maybe not the whole thing, but I have to read something.

And, just playing the devil's advocate here, but it seems as though a lot of people in the middle ages really did believe in the myth of the holy grail. Don't you think that, if you're trying to write an accurate historical mystery, that you would factor this belief into the motivations and thought processes of at least some of your characters?

Like I said, just playing the devil's advocate. I really do agree with the points of your review, I just wanted to take the opportunity to stir the pot. ;)

Ryan said...

I guess there would be a lot of people who would have believed in the holy grail, but there would be ten times more people just trying hard not to contract bubonic plague or get burned at the stake.

I like a good pot stir.

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