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Monday, January 26, 2015

“Agincourt”, by Bernard Cornwell

451 pages, HarperCollins, ISBN-13: 978-0061578915

In Bernard Cornwell’s vision of 15th Century warfare, almost everyone in it is a nasty, brutish and violent bastard. And they're also short. Nicholas Hook, the hero of Agincourt, is a different kind of man – oh he can be nasty and brutish as they can all right, but he’s also tall and with a touch of honor to him. Cornwell is quite matter-of-fact about violence and murder as everyone else in his story seems to be, and this is definitely a book for those who like nonstop action (preferably drenched in blood, mud and bad language).

As the title suggests, Agincourt takes an in-depth look at one of the best-documented and (thanks to Shakespeare) most famous battles in early English history. Like all good historical fiction, though, the political background and historical incidents in the novel play out through the perspective of the main character – in this case, the fictional Nick Hook, archer extraordinaire (and unlikely confidant of saints). The action starts with the first line: “On a winter’s day in 1413, just before Christmas, Nicholas Hook decided to commit murder”. From there, Cornwell riffs through a fast first chapter that sets up an ongoing conflict with a wicked priest and his two illegitimate sons. Nick gets sent to London as an archer, where he’s obliged to help hang heretics, and ends up in France, to help King Henry V pursue his claim to the French throne. It’s a long and bloody way to Agincourt, beginning with the fall of Soissons, whose aftermath is one of the nastiest (because true) tales of betrayal and cruelty in the annals of military warfare. Nick escapes the fate of his fellow archers and in the process saves a French novice from rape. He also escapes the town, with the intercession of two saints, Crispin and Crispinian, the patrons of Soissons, whose voices pop into his head at opportune moments throughout the book. Whether the saints approve of Nick’s rescue of the girl or have taken offense at the slaughter of their town's residents, no one knows – certainly not Nick, though he’s humbly grateful for the help.

The personal aspects of Nick’s story are executed in Cornwell’s hallmark style: logical, well-constructed, deftly paced and brief, so that we can get back to the hacking, eyeball-gouging and blood-squirting without too much delay. All the characters are drawn with quick, vivid strokes, but largely in two dimensions. The real star of the show is the final battle, which is carried out in such painstaking detail that you can feel the liquid (you should hope it’s only sweat) trickling down the inside of your armor. One of Cornwell’s many authentic touches is that none of the soldiers knows or cares why he’s in France; if King Hall says that God has given him the French throne, that’s good enough for these soldiers. All they really know is that they’ve been sent to kill Frenchmen, plunder, and ransom are the odd nobleman – oh, and rape French maidens (aside from Nick’s grandmother, there’s only one female character in the book who doesn’t either suffer rape or narrowly escape it).

Agincourt was a defining battle which turned the tide of history; lightly armored but deadly and agile long bowmen could defeat much greater numbers of heavily armored but ponderous cavalry and knights. I truly enjoyed Cornwell’s rousing cast of characters and I shared their failures, foibles, and triumphs – and you don't have to be a graduate of M.I.T. to enjoy it. Well worth the read and passing on to one of your (manly) man pals.

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