Book Review: 1356 by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell's historical fiction book - 1356It is not often that I am inspired to read a book after watching a TV series, but the recent BBC adaptation The Last Kingdom (based on Cornwell’s Saxon Stories) had me gripped. I was delighted to discover that he has written a number of books, and immediately began with 1356. It is an intriguing tale, bringing to life a confusing and complex period of European history – The Hundred Years War between England and France.   

Filled with suspense from the very beginning, Cornwell draws you into a world of good versus evil – graphic, detailed, and with an underlying sense of wit and irony. The opening scene: a monk in a crypt at night, a battle raging outside. Gradually more and more details emerge – the characters are built up layer by layer, as he reveals their names and stories.

Superb Historical Detail

The novel’s plot is complex. Building up to a culmination of the one great battle at Poitiers, each character has their own tale to tell along the way. There are quests, oaths and bloody feuds, and one of the things I particularly enjoyed was the atmospheric way in which Cornwell brings the history to life, describing the clothing, weapons and war tactics in superb detail.

An Epic Tale

There is also a sense of irony which runs throughout the book. The theme of the quest is mocked on numerous occasions, and yet all of the main characters are on some kind of quest. The ultimate quest is to find La Malice, the sword of St Peter, and the book as a whole seems to echo the format and language of an epic poem, with ending lines such as the one below:

“And so, in the dusk, Roland to the dark tower came.”

To begin with this language seems to stand out, not quite fitting with the linguistic style of the book as a whole. It is, in fact, a quote from King Lear (also the title of a Robert Browning poem) which foreshadows what is to come. As I read further I realised these ending lines conjure up an image of a great orator marking a significant moment in the flow of an epic tale. This perfectly suits the quest-style narrative as it carries us along, building suspense and momentum.

A Remarkable Cast

Cornwell has created a remarkable cast of characters, each one of which is carefully developed in their own way. We meet Brother Michael – the reluctant monk, The Dowager Countess of Malbuisson – full of charm and vivacity, Father Marchant – the mysterious green-eyed monk with his hawk – a ‘calade’ who can tell truth from lies, and the fat, cruel Count of Labrouillade. In fact, each character, even those who appear only briefly, is skilfully brought to life.

Roland de Verrec, ‘The Virgin Knight’, is an accomplished fighter, whose naïve perceptions are challenged as he discovers that this world of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ is not as black and white as it first seems. The protagonist, Sir Thomas of Hookerton, who goes by the name of ‘Le Bâtard’ (English Translation very similar), turns out to be a good guy. Though he does lead the Hellequin (his band of mercenaries) around the country, fighting and killing for money, he doesn’t let his men rape, and pays fairly for provisions.

A Complex PlotMap in book 1356

One thing which I should say is that I am not that familiar with this particular period of history, and it did require a degree of concentration at times to understand exactly what was going on. The map at the front of the novel is helpful, particularly when the characters are discussing where to go next, and it really helps to illustrate the lack of geographical knowledge at the time. The impression given by the book is that the Hundred Years War was a time of skirmishes, uncertain leadership and constant realigning of loyalties.

An Exceptional Novel

I would highly recommend this as an exceptional novel, full to the brim with detail, skilful language and fascinating characters. However, my recommendation should come with a warning attached – this book will make you late for things. Once started, it is almost impossible to put down.

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