I’m a big Bernard Cornwell fan. I don’t think I’ve read every one of his books, but I’ve got at least one full shelf of his work, including the entire Richard Sharpe series, The Archer’s Tale Series, and the Uhtred the Viking Series. All are great reads. You know what you are getting with Cornwell’s stuff: a manly-man hero in a historical setting, a small battle followed by a big battle, with one antagonist, usually, but not always, someone who is supposed to be on his side. There’s always a woman as well, a love interest for the hero, put in danger because of the hero’s obligations. The books are predictable in their characters. But I -- and a great many other people -- love them not despite that, but because of that.
What having familiar (some might say cardboard) characters enables Cornwell to do is to focus on the story, which is the character we readers of this historical fiction most care about. I love learning about eras of history of which I only had name recognition prior to reading a book. In fact, some of my favorite parts of Cornwell’s books are the Historical Notes at the end of the books that let me know what was real, and what was literary license.
In Agincourt, Cornwell tells the story of three battles fought between the English and the French in the year 1415: The Siege of Soissons, The Siege of Harcourt and the Battle of Agincourt. The reader follows Thomas Hook, an English archer, through these battles, and through battles with people from his past. The historical aspects of the story are wonderful, especially the second half of the book, with the focus on Agincourt. Unfortunately, this time the cardboard characters are paper thin, the dialog forced, and the writing, well, a little bland and repetitive. Not that it was repetitive from other books, but within this book I saw the same sentence repeated three times in different chapters.
Perhaps I’ve been reading too much about good writing lately, and I start to notice things that should have been caught by an editor. But this book just didn’t flow like the rest of Cornwell’s work, and the result was a little flat. Definitely not his best work, but because Agincourt (the event) is such an important historical battle -- not for the military strategists, but for its place in historical context – I still recommend reading it. If you are a first time Cornwell reader, don’t let it scar you into not reading more of his work. If you’ve read him before, just go into this one with the knowledge that Agincourt (the battle) is fascinating and gruesome, while Agincourt (the book) is almost interesting, and a little gruesome.