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Book Review: "Agincourt," by Bernard Cornwell

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By Diana Gabaldon,
who is the author, most recently, of "Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade"
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

AGINCOURT

By Bernard Cornwell

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HarperCollins. 451 pp. $27.99

In Bernard Cornwell's Hobbesian vision of 15th-century England, almost everyone is nasty, brutish and short. Nicholas Hook, the hero of "Agincourt," is at least tall, though as matter-of-fact about violence and murder as everyone else. This is 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. They've been sent to kill Frenchmen. This is their job; plunder and ransom are what's on everyone's mind, with rape a close third. (Aside from Nick's grandmother, there's only one female character in the book who doesn't either suffer rape or narrowly escape it.) If the king says God has given him the French throne, that's good enough for these soldiers.

Cornwell's use of Saint Crispin and his brother is a clever touch, tying the fall of Soissons into a progression of military action that takes us through the siege of Harfleur and on to the final unlikely battle on Saint Crispin's Day. The tiny English force overcomes a French army four times larger -- in the process echoing Shakespeare's famous speech from "Henry V," though such stirring words are never spoken on Cornwell's bloody ground.

"God's blood, William, but this is joy!" is probably the most eloquent speech given during this version of the battle. It's spoken by Sir John Cornewaille, an actual participant in the battle, but no relation to the novel's author, though Cornwell obviously has great affection for him; Cornewaille is monomaniacal but has more true life to him than most of the other characters.

Beyond the saints' unlikely intercessions in Nick's private life, Cornwell handles religion reasonably well. Too many historical novels are written from a modern secular-humanist viewpoint, which assumes that religion is and always has been a scam and that its practitioners must be either cynical or naive, the clergy either exploiters or feckless fools. Cornwell does have an insane rapist priest, but he carefully includes a decent one as well, and on the whole, manages to show a time in which religion and its references were part of the fabric of life for the common man.

In fact, Cornwell's historical accuracy is excellent throughout, and he gracefully acknowledges his sources in an interesting "Historical Note" at the end. Agincourt isn't a glorious battle; you see every mud-clogged, blood-soaked inch of the field and smell the sweat and excrement of the archers, knights and foot soldiers who fought for those hard-won inches. But when the fighting's over, you're left with a sense of awe at what was done there, and admiration for the men who did it.


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