(Originally published March 27, 2009)
Bernard Cornwell is the “It” author when it comes to historical fiction. His bestselling novels depict young men thrust into historic conflicts that shaped the face of Western civilization – and the acclaim his books have garnered is well deserved. No one – I repeat, *no one* – writes epic battle scenes better than Cornwell. I’ve tried. It’s impossible.
“Agincourt”, Cornwell’s latest, follows British archer Nicholas Hook as he travels with King Henry V into the depths of war-torn France. Henry’s ambitious goal: unite the two shattered kingdoms under the British crown. Fans of Shakespeare’s classic play “Henry V” (and those who have seen the 1989 film version starring Kenneth Branagh) already know how this story turns out. But it’s Cornwell’s powerful characters that really drive this book.
Hook is fleeing from his own conscience. After failing to stop the brutal murder of a religious dissenter, he believes his soul is cursed and he can only redeem himself through noble deeds (I’ll avoid the obvious works-righteousness theological question…this is an action novel, after all, not a Scriptural treatise). During his journey, he meets a beautiful French girl named Melisande and incurs the wrath of a corrupt priest and his two sons. The book climaxes in the white-knuckled, pulse-pounding, blood-spraying battle of Agincourt.
It should be noted that Cornwell does not have a high regard for the institution of the Church. Without fail, all priests fall into one of two categories: the jovial, ale-loving, womanizing Friar Tuck type; and the scrawny, finger-pointing, cowardly, lascivious type. (This assessment comes after reading more than a dozen of Cornwell’s other books). Personal faith is treated with respect and reverence, yet the Church is unfailingly portrayed as corrupt and bigoted. This is an unfortunate trend, but there is some truth in Cornwell’s assessment.
Cornwell’s books also take an unflinching look at the seamier side of medieval life. Several rapes occur just offscreen, and some coarse jesting takes place among the soldiers in Henry’s army. Bad language is also prevalent throughout, but it is generally not gratuitous.
Violence? Don’t get me started.
Sensitive readers with a distaste for blood should stay far away from any of Cornwell’s books. Any film adaptation of “Agincourt” would carry a solid R rating due to the sheer sustained brutality of the climactic battle scene. There are plenty of violent moments leading up to the final crazed melee…but nothing that can compare to the amount of gore in the pivotal conflict of Agincourt. And this isn’t just a brief interlude – the battle scene lasts for a solid 75+ pages. This is realistic war violence, after all. Cornwell’s battles are undeniably exciting. Fans of movies such as “Gladiator” or “The Patriot” will appreciate “Agincourt” for its intensity and realism.
If you are easily disturbed by such things, avoid the book…it’s really that simple. I highly recommend “Agincourt” to any fans of medieval action novels or those looking to gain a broader understanding of this important battle.
Epic. No other word works to describe it.