Monday, June 10, 2013

'"La Malice," Thomas said, "a magic sword, another Excalibur."'

3.5 out of 5 stars

It took me a while for my attention to get drawn into this novel. Mainly because I discovered, only after I'd started reading the thing, that it's actually the fourth novel in Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series. Now, other people may have no problem picking up and reading a book from the middle of a series, but me? Um, yeah, that doesn't work for me. For better of worse, I tend to be rather OCD about book series: I hate reading books from the middle of one, and the idea of skipping around, reading the books out of order, positively drives me bonkers, giving me an eye twitch and the beginnings of a foamy mouth. So when I found out 1356 was number four in a series, I nearly screamed.* I also nearly stopped reading. However, I have such a backlog of ARCs I need to read and review that the notion of me trying to plow through the first three books (and that's only if I were able to find them at my local, woefully lacking, library in the first place) while still keeping up with my other ARCs just so I could be comfortable reading 1356 nearly gave me the same eye twitch as the one I was trying to develop due to reading 1356 in the first place. (Damn, that was an exhausting sentence!) So I took myself in hand (which is an idiom I've always found vaguely naughty, most likely because of my brain's permanent dwelling place in a nice and comfy gutter), gave myself a stern talking to, and soldiered on with 1356, suffering only the occasional eye spasm in the process.

I also had a rough beginning with this book as for the longest time I couldn't identify with or be sympathetic to any of the characters. It took some time for them to mean anything to me, even the main character, Sir Thomas Hookton, aka le Bâtard, leader of the Hellequin, a band of mercenaries working in France while serving under the aegis of the Earl of Northampton. Eventually, though, I warmed up to Thomas and his band, especially Brother Michael and the Irishman, Keane (the latter mainly due to his adoption of a couple of wolfhounds away from the Frenchmen who were hunting down him and Thomas; as an animal lover, it was a particularly satisfying scene).

The story itself is interesting yet oddly forgettable. Revolving around a mythical sword said to be the sword of Saint Peter, a sword said to grant whoever bears it certain victory over his foes, both the French and English army have sent scouts to find it in order to aid their endeavors. (If the year of the book's title doesn't hold any significance for you, it was in that year the Battle of Poitiers took place, which was the second major engagement of the Hundred Years' War. Edward, also known as the Black Prince—for what reason is still debated among historians—the son of King Edward III, had raided France that year, his second chevauchée [a destructive raid designed to inflict severe economic disaster on the enemy] through that war-torn country, spurring King Jean II of France to pursue him. The two ultimately met at Poitiers, and even though the English army was outnumbered, road-weary, thirsty, and exhausted, and though the battle was long, the English came out on top, capturing around 2,000 members of the French aristocracy, including King Jean himself, whose ransom alone—six million gold écus—was equivalent to about a third of France's GNP.) So each side believes they are in the right and that this sword, la Malice, will bring God's wrath down upon their enemies. In between battle scenes and personal dramas revolving around Thomas and his band we watch as this sword gets shuffled around from place to place and from person to person as it falls into the hands of those who would hide it and those who would abuse it. Eventually it finds itself in the possession of Sculley, a wild Scotsman marginally under the control of the Lord of Douglas, on the side of King Jean. After a brief but bloody sword fight between Sculley and Thomas, the fate of la Malice was something of an anticlimax. Maybe that was the point, but it just seemed rather disappointing. And that was the overall sensation I took away from my reading experience. It just felt as though the book was missing something, as though I was only getting part of the story. Perhaps it's due to the fact that it is number four in a series. Perhaps it's better read as part of a whole, when all the pieces fit together into a larger, more detailed picture.

I also have to disagree with the blurb on the cover from George R.R. Martin in which he states “Bernard Cornwell does the best battle scenes of any writer I've ever read, past or present.” Well, I'm very sorry George, but the author who writes the best battle scenes is still, to my mind, Conn Iggulden. Cornwell writes vivid, bloody, stirring scenes, to be sure, but they're nowhere near as atmospheric and breath-taking as Iggulden's. That's not to say Cornwell's writing is flawed. I've read his Warlord Chronicles, which tackled the story of King Arthur, and like those books, 1356 is a cracking good read. The dialogue is fast-paced, accessible without being overly-anachronistic, the story moves along and keeps your attention, doling out information in just the right amount without slowing down the action, and he allows the characters to develop as the story moves along so that by the end, though they may not be complex creatures, they're far from cardboard cutouts. At least for his “good guys”; Cornwell's bad guys in this novel tend to suffer slightly from the Black Hat Syndrome in that they're after one thing or one person, their motives for going after that thing or person are narrowly drawn (i.e. revenge or greed or simply because they're a black-hearted knave who loves being bad), and as such become near-caricatures of people. Basically, they're villains because they're villains and nothing more. Thomas is the most three-dimensional character of all; he's obviously one of the good 'uns, yet he does shady, even downright criminal things, he has conflicting emotions between what he's doing and what he should be doing—basically he behaves like a human being, especially one who's often placed between a rock and a hard place and must choose the lesser of two evils in order to move. (Two clichés in one sentence, woo hoo!) That said, I suppose the goal of most writers is for you, as the reader, to empathize with the good guys and Cornwell certainly accomplishes that. Or at least for me he did. Every time one of the characters found themselves in a perilous situation, I suffered along with them, heart beating rapidly, palms sweating, lips gnawed raw as my eyes zoomed across the page, reading as fast as I could in the hope that the character would soon find an escape.

So, yeah, despite some flaws and a slow start, in the end I would recommend this book as a good read. However, I do believe it would've been even better had I gotten to it after first reading the three books that came before it.

*It doesn't help that this brought up one of my biggest pet-peeves about book publishing: Why can't publishers identify a book that's part of a series? How difficult would it be to put a small number somewhere on the spine, or place, in small typeset, a sentence somewhere on the front cover informing potential readers that the book they're holding is #__ in a series? Or, at the very least, place a page at the front of the book listing the titles, in chronological order, that belong to a particular series, allowing the person holding said book to exclaim, “Hey, this is book #4 in the series! I need to read these other books first!” Really, would it put such a huge dent in their bottom line? I think not. In fact, doing so would encourage more sales, in my not-so-humble opinion: First of all, people wouldn't get pissed off about picking up a book in the middle of a series, and secondly, in my experience, people like to buy in bulk, so when they find the first (clearly labeled) book in a series, they tend to pick up the second one at the same time.

Read October 25-November 29, 2012 
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program January 3, 2013 

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