As a huge fan of the Sharpe Series by Bernard Cornwell (Richard Sharpe is a British soldier during the Napoleonic Wars â€“ a must read for all military history fiction fans – the first book is Sharpe’s Tiger), I decided to explore some more of Cornwell’s writings. As a result, I came across the Grail Quest Series (book titles include The Archer’s Tale, Vagabond, and Heretic). As you can tell from the Series title, the books concentrate on the mystery of the whereabouts of the Holy Grail. This Series is as well written and researched as the Sharpe Series. They are well worth a look.
Rather than try to give you my poor attempt at explaining the plots of each book, I will paraphrase from Publisher’s Weekly:
The Archer’s Tale
The young archer Thomas of Hookton joins the forces of King Edward III to fight against France, which takes place in the mid-14th century at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Thomas, excellent skill with the bow, survives the pillaging of his village to become an archer and then rescues a female counterpart known as the Blackbird after she’s nearly raped by Sir Simon Jekyll during one of the troop’s raids in France. The nobleman becomes Thomas’s chief rival as Jekyll continues to pursue the Blackbird, and Thomas is finally cast out of his unit after failing to kill Jekyll in an ill-conceived assassination attempt. He recovers and is able to get a royal pardon. The three members of Cornwell’s romantic triangle eventually meet during a huge climactic battle at Crâ€šcy (sic), where Thomas must face up to a demanding family legacy involving a quest for a special lance.
The novel follows Thomas of Hookton, the bastard son of a recently murdered priest whose family claims it once possessed the Holy Grail. No one is certain the Holy Grail actually exists, but many believe it does, and kings are waging war and committing murder in the search for it. Thomas has a book of his father’s, which might reveal clues to the Grail’s location, if only he could make head or tails of it. But others are aware of the book’s existence, and Thomas’s motley enemies and rivals – including Guy Vexille, the French cousin who murdered his father; a Dominican Inquisitor who loves his job; and a treacherous English knight – are all hot on his trail. Thomas must also fight mercenaries, Scots and Frenchmen in gruesome, long-drawn-out battles.
For years, English archer Thomas of Hookton has been searching for the Holy Grail. Thomas is not certain it ever existed, but obscure clues link his family to the mysterious vessel. In 1347, driven by his desire to plumb the truth of the Grail as well as to earn money from the plunder of French lands and property, Thomas and a small group of soldiers capture a castle in Gascony, the homeland of Thomas’s father. Thomas hopes to hold the castle against the French, raid the countryside for loot and draw the attention of his evil cousin Guy Vexille. Vexille appears, but so does the army of a local lord, sent to besiege the castle, and the vicious brother of a treacherous and cunning bishop who is determined to secure the Grail. Fighting honorably amid extreme brutality, Thomas is aided by loyal English archers, English and French men-at-arms, local bandits, a Scottish mercenary and a heretic girl with unusual powers. Outnumbered by his enemies, he faces the might of a huge cannon and the power of the Church’s greed-not to mention the dreaded Black Death. Most daunting of all, however, is the decision Thomas must make when he finally discovers the truth about the Holy Grail.
With all of that said, I thoroughly enjoyed the books. Cornwell’s style is fast-paced with many twists and turns to keep you guessing. The style is not formulaic like so many other book series that I have read. As a result of the twists and turns, you can never get truly attached to characters because you do not know if they will killed on the next page. Despite this, it is still hard to read about how some characters are eliminated.
I like how Cornwell fleshes out the main characters and their backgrounds. This is particularly true for Thomas and Guy Vexille. You get little details about the history of the Vexille family in each of the books to where, by the end of the last book, you fully understand the family’s connection with the Grail.
As is par for the course with Cornwell, you get an excellent feel for the time period. You understand the major political figures and events of the time period. You also get a front seat description of some of the major battles that occurred during the time the books are written. For example, Cornwell thoroughly and easily explains why the English were able to defeat the French at the Battle of CrÃ©cy â€“ two words â€“ English archers.
If you like to read about the effects of weapons on the human body, Cornwell is particularly adept at explaining this. He explains what different types of arrows do to different armor and the human body. Some of his descriptions are not for the weak hearted, but I doubt those types of people would be reading his books anyway.
In sum, Cornwell delivers another masterful series on a time period that many Americans know little about.
What about the religious element? I read and enjoyed THE ARCHER’S TALE, but have avoided the later because because I thought I smelled a Code. Are the books based on a conventional postmodern view of the church, that is, one that sees it as wholly corrupt, destroying freedom and suppressing truths preserved by heretics? Dan Brown stuff?
I don’t think Cornwell takes a postmodern view of the church. Yes, there are some bad people who represent the Church (the Dominican Inquisitor and the French Archbishop), but their are also good people who represent it as well (the monk in the first and second books and the Abbot in the third book). Also, even though Thomas is not a saint by any means, he still believes in an all-knowing, all-powerful God. I hope this helps.
That’s good to know, because I really enjoy Cornwell’s work.