1356, by Bernard Cornwell

November 2, 2013 at 09:48 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , )




Bernard Cornwell is a tricky fellow to define, and his books are not the easiest to anticipate. He is certainly a very able writer; there is no argument to be made on that count. One of the biggest fluctuations in his writing quality tends to be his restraint, where he allows himself to become so carried away in depicting a ruthless and gritty realism that it turns into an unreadable slush of perverted sex and graphic violence. Another of his faults is linked even closer to his commitment to realism: there are a lot of people in real life who are cruel, selfish monsters that some of his books become populated exclusively with characters who are unappealing in every regard.

Now, obviously if he fell victim to these two failings in every one of his books, he could hardly be called an able writer. The truth is that when he makes his mark, he shines. It would not be a stretch to name him the best writer of historical fiction working today. It would even to be fair to name him as being among the best writers of historical fiction of all time. Picking up one of his books might rightly be a venture carried with great trepidation, but it will never be a worthless effort.

“…the Black Friar walked north. He was going home, home to the tower. He carried la Malice and the fate of Christendom. And he vanished into the darkness.”


This particular entry in the trilogy that became a loosely-bound series drifting through the Hundred Years War shows writing that is more mature than anything in his Richard Sharpe series, and even than some of the writing in his excellent Arthurian trilogy. This is not to say his writing is faultless. There are momentary lapses, overly-dramatic blunders, and storytelling cul-de-sacs; but the whole is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, and he produces an epic and thoroughly gripping adventure story that no reader could justly describe as boring.

The central quest that runs through the story is a rather disappointing MacGuffin, and this is really an excuse to place characters Cornwell has established elsewhere onto the stage in the midst of a deeply intriguing historical battle, and allow them to thrive. This is not necessarily a bad choice, as a plot that might easily have felt like the barrel-scrapings of that infamous incompetent Dan Brown, is instead turned into a peripheral curiosity that does a fine job of pacing beside the book without ever overpowering the human dynamics of the plot.

This, then, is where Cornwell shines, and what turns 1356 from just another battle told from the perspective of a footsoldier into something of note. His ensemble cast of characters are cleverly crafted, and there is a sense of real human depth to them. Their motivations and their conflicting passions are threaded gently into the plot without any ham-fisted exposition, and an impressive amount of time is spent developing even extraneous characters. Thomas of Hookton is a fellow explored pretty thoroughly in others of Cornwell’s books, but as with Sharpe the books are written so as generally to be legible–and even enticing and fulfilling–even when read out of chronology. In 1356 there are strong echoes of Cornwell’s Arthur, though decidedly less tragic in flavour, which can be nothing if not a strength.

This is not the best of Cornwell’s work, but the excellence with which it is written ought to stand then as a proof in its own right of this author’s abilities and attention to detail. There are many writers who rest easily on the laurels of past successes, and it is a genuine relief to find that Bernard Cornwell has not fallen prey to laziness in his later books. This is a book easy to recommend, and if it serves as a gateway to the author’s stronger work, so much the better. But it is a fine piece of work on its own merits.


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The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell

July 23, 2010 at 17:24 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )


Cornwell is a master in his genre, and a superb writer. It is a shame that The Last Kingdom manages to seem so tired and strained when it is the first book in a new series. It might well be dreadful to imagine what the later additions to the Saxon Chronicles are like. Uhtred is a thoroughly unlikeable little squit, managing to combine willful ignorance, pigheaded arrogance, ridiculous pride, physical incompetence and bare-faced treason in one rather unappealing character. It is understandable that Cornwell wanted to create something other than an everyman. It is excusable that he wished to give his character a little grime to go with the gleam, but he ended up with a caricature of Falstaff without the redeeming buffoonery.

Cornwell’s dislike of Christianity is a recurring theme in his books, but in The Last Kingdom it is transformed from his expressed opinion into a club with which to beat both the reader and some of his potentially more interesting characters. It is easy to see that he feared turning Alfred into a sad carbon copy of his brilliant portrayal of Arthur in the Warlord Chronicles, but turning him into a gibbering idiot simply because of his faith makes for tiresome reading.

His description of dark ages warfare, of naval tactics and of the political climate are all, of course, his usual riveting and highly intelligent work; his penchant to describe his characters’ wenching activities in grisly detail is thankfully toned down a little from what he doled out in Sharpe and Stonehenge. Despite these successes, this is a poorly chosen direction for a terrific writer, and not worth reading unless you have already read and reread his better works.

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