Interested in historical fiction? Then there’s really no way to avoid Bernard Cornwell; nor should you. He writes fast-paced, entertaining stories with vividly drawn characters, all within the context of a reasonably accurate historical frame. And he’s prolific. To date he’s written some 50 books; there are several series, as well as a number of standalone novels.
The Saxon stories take place in England during the reign of King Alfred the Great, the Danish invasions and the Danelaw, and the years after Alfred’s death. The protagonist, who tells his story in the first person when he’s an old man, is Uthred of Bebbanburg (today’s Bamburgh in Northumbria), a Saxon who is captured and raised by the Danes after his father is killed in battle when he’s but a boy. Because of this capture, he loses his birthright as lord of Bebbanburg, and because of his upbringing he’s Danish in attitude and religion–and he’s a warrior. But, he’s still also part Saxon and it’s the ebb and flow of his divided loyalties that underpin this story of battles, politics, love, and more battles. Uthred is a great warrior, but also a great trumpeter of his own glory and fame, a great boaster, and well aware that three spinners who sit at the base of the tree Yggdrasil are laughing at him–and this makes him a great storyteller. He’s also a good and kind man, though he’s often loath to admit it.
To date, there are six volumes of The Saxon Stories:
- The Last Kingdom (2004)
- The Pale Horseman (2005)
- The Lords of the North (2006)
- Sword Song (2007)
- The Burning Land (2009)
I’ve read them all twice; and will probably read them again when the next volume comes out.
Agincourt is both the story of the great battle between the forces of Henry V of England and the much larger armies of Charles VI of France–a battle won by the English partly on the strength of the English archers–and the story of one of those archers, one Nicholas Hook. Hook has become outlawed for striking a priest (who certainly deserved it, whatever you think about priests), and later comes to be in the service of one Sir John Cornwaille (and no, that’s no accident). Sir John himself nearly steals the show from the rather ordinary Hook (and it’s part of the point that Hook and those like him were rather ordinary).
Sir John dropped from his saddle, took Hook’s ale, and drained it. “Remind me why you were outlawed, Hook?”
“Because I hit a priest, Sir John,” Hook admitted.
“That priest?” Sir John asked, jerking his thumb toward the retreating horseman.
“Yes, Sir John.”
Sir John shook his head. “You did wrong, Hook, you did very wrong. You shouldn’t have hit him.”
“No, Sir John,” Hook said humbly.
“You should have slit the goddam bastard’s putrid bowels open and ripped his heart out through his stinking arse,” Sir John said, looking at Father Christopher as if hoping his words might offend the priest, but Father Christopher merely smiled.
“Is the bastard mad?” Sir John demanded.
“Famously,” Father Christopher said, “but so were half the saints and most of the prophets. I can’t think you’d want to go hawking with Jeremiah, Sir John?”
As if scenes like this alone don’t make Agincourt worth reading, Cornwell’s real sympathy with the ordinary, yeoman archers does. His grasp of the technicalities of archery are excellent, well-described, and make me want take up the yew longbow myself. Or perhaps I’ll just read it yet again.
And, if you read this book and then happen to see the new film version of Robin Hood (directed by Ridley Scott) this spring, you might be struck by more than a passing resemblance, even though it’s a different story.
Lest you think that Cornwall is only interested in the medieval world, there are the Sharpe novels–all 23 of them. Richard Sharpe is an officer of humble origins in the British Army before, during, and after the Napoleonic Wars; he does service in Europe, India, and elsewhere and is the very example of someone who makes his way based on skill and cunning instead of the money and patronage that was the basis of officership during that period. The Sharpe novels present such a large and sprawling story, that it’s hard to take them all in (and indeed, I have not yet done so, but I will someday).
And, if the prospect of reading 23 novels is somewhat daunting, there’s also the series of excellent TV adaptations starring Sean Bean as Sharpe.
This has been but a taste of Cornwell’s historical fiction. However, if Saxons, English archers, or British infantrymen aren’t to your taste, you could also check out The Starbuck Chronicles (US Civil War), the Thrillers (contemporary sailing), the Arthur Books (King Arthur in 6th century Britain), the Grail Quest (another archer in 14th century Britain), and several other standalone novels, including Stonehenge.