Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book Review: Agincourt, by Bernard Cornwell

Clearly attracted to this sort of fiction, I decided to read this brand new book and then review it. I read an extremely short (say, several sentences) review in World Magazine, and although I am wary of this "Christian" magazine I wondered if they would have reviewing views in any way similar to my own. (Nothing against World Magazine or its readers, I myself read publications for certain reasons that I mostly or entirely dislike so do not condemn its readers at all.) When I finished Agincourt, I was left wondering why the folks at World gave it a good review.

This is my first encounter with Cornwell, and thus I compared him to two other historical fiction authors I have read: for subject matter, G.A. Henty, and for modern historical fiction, Jeff Shaara. Both of them win out over Cornwell, in my opinion.

First, I must admit that Cornwell's writing is interesting and his story compelling. The reader is treated to a few very detailed scenes such as one where a man draws a bow, a man selects a new bow, a primitive cannon is loaded and then fired, and a knight's suit of armor is donned. (One of my favorite parts of the book was actually the short Historical Note in the back, but that's just me.) The battle of Agincourt itself, long and detailed, was so compelling that I have absolutely nothing to say against this part. (The archery segments in particular are glorious. They made me want to take up archery again....) Intensely violent, yes. Perhaps the most violent fiction book I've read yet...but then again I read little fiction so that isn't saying much. The whole battle was epic but brutal at the same time, grand yet dirty. Men cut, stab, slash and hack. Blood spurts, bodies are cut apart, limbs are dismembered, throats are skewered. Corpses litter the ground, horse and man alike, as well as the feces of so many scared men. Very, very well done, very, very compelling.

Our "hero", Nicholas Hook, is not quite your usual hero, I have to admit. He engages in (apparently) thievery, promiscuity, and murder. However, I will mostly refrain from discussing Hook in detailed concentration; instead I will discuss several major issues I had with content.

First, though, I must state that as this book was so violent I would warn anyone who is uncomfortable with it. If you found yourself fast forwarding through the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan and then also skipping the final battle, don't even try this one. It is filled with descriptive gore and violence, but that didn't bother me any. Cornwell seems to have the, uh, capability...skill ? to make men die in ingenious ways a bit, but I was not offended as this is war, and what's more you've got swords, and not bullets. Much more vicious.

But there's the issue of language. While, as I noted about Shaara's WWII series, language often does not bother me too much (please realize that I do condemn swearing, for the record), Cornwell's use is...well, profane. He uses foul words in, shall we say creative ways, as if he enjoys it. Everyone from priests to men-at-arms to knights curse blue streaks, and they could make merchant seamen blush. Foul all the way through, I found this language to be entirely unnecessary. It could not be excused as a tool to describe the military (as Shaara might argue), it was downright profane. How many different words and variations of words do we need for human excrement? I doubt some of the words used even existed in 1415....

And then there was another, even bigger issue: sexual content. (If my readers are cringing now, they know me well....) Hook adulterates with a married woman (wife of his superior, might I add), uses a prostitute, and also has intercourse with another woman (SPOILER: though they eventually marry). Thankfully none of these acts are actually described, but painfully we do get several depictions, sometimes a bit too detailed, of rape. Several rape scenes are found in the book, and these are somewhat disturbing, in a way. If you want your evil nemesis to be evil and you want him to be this bad, then so be it, I see no problem with that...but do you have to be so graphic? I would be afraid that this would be uncomfortable for ladies to read, or at least that's how I felt as I read those parts. Sexual language is also found, little bits of other things. I will decline from being too explicit as I have readers who are ladies and readers who are young. If you wish to know for "study" reasons (such as me reading the book and writing this review), you must be able to prove yourself a man of a certain age, and then we can talk, but in private. ;-D

Another point I strongly disliked, one I was waiting for an explanation until the very end of the book but never got one: Hook hears voices in his head. At first he thinks it may be God, then wonders if it may be the Devil, but soon we discover that they are in fact two saints, Saints Crispin and Crispinian. And they talk to him throughout the book, giving him much needed advice and guidance (sometimes in command-like fashion) as he goes through his eventful life. What?!? Saints? Yes, that's right. The reader is provided with no explanation! If you know me you will know that two subjects I have little tolerance for are sexual content and spiritual content of a false/unbiblical nature. So no we have popery in our story as well? Yes, the characters for the most part Catholic, practice Catholicism, and pray to saints, but that is historically-based. Talking dead priests in protagonist's head? Unwarranted! (And apparently even Saints can string curses together as well....)

May I also note that priests seem to be nasty in this book. One is a career rapist, and another one, one of the good guys, doesn't seem to be very Godly. I will say that yes, I am no Catholic but I was left to wonder if Cornwell had a dislike of religion as he didn't seem to be attempting to "expose" the Catholic church or anything. I will admit, he gets points for an at least slightly sympathetic scene where Lollards are burnt at the stake.

So you see, objectionable content was found throughout. Warning: SPOILERS! Going back to Hook again, due to a family feud he attempts to kill a man, fails, but gets his chance another time. This time, in my opinion, was different. Hook is then in love with a woman--as I said his future wife--and this family he is feuding with is intent on killing him, and then, at the very least, raping her. Long story short the man is stuck under something and will soon suffocate but strangely Hook pulls him out. He probably should have left him...but then he asks Crispinian/Crispin what to do, and they tell him to kill the man. Hook takes a crossbow bolt, clubs him over the head with it, and then, to make sure he is 110% dead, drives it into the eye socket until it grinds against the back of the man's skull, causing Hook's hand to be bloodied. Yes, the man was a horrible danger and I can understand Hook killing him...but why did he drag him out in the first place, only to then execute him methodically?

To give you another SPOILER, I must admit that Hook had at least one good quality about him. As I said before, Hook marries a girl, but how he finds her is a scene that made me want to cheer. In the beginning of the book, Hook tries to help a young Lollard girl who is about to be raped before being killed. He begins, but then stops after the stunning experience of having hit a priest (the career rapist of the book, who is also of the other family in the feud who wishes and attempts to rape Hook's wife--yes, it is a very satisfying scene when this priest is killed in a very appropriate manner). The girl is raped twice before having her throat slit, and Hook is wrought with guilt. (However, using ladies of the night a little while later does not seem to be very helpful.) Later he finds a chance to redeem himself--he rescues his future wife as she is on the brink of being raped herself, but only after passing up on rescuing several other women in the process of being raped (this is during a the sack of the city of Soissons) and also only after the saintly voices command him to act, just as they did the time, when he tried to help the Lollard girl. Even with those major issues there, his rescue of the girl and his constant watch over her for the rest of the novel was downright manly.

So, to end my unfortunately clumsy, strangely-written review I must say that, if you want good medieval novels, then please read the amazing works of G.A. Henty. If you want that modern historical fiction flavor (without what seemed to me to be the author's, in this case Cornwell's, attempts to impress modernity on his subject), then read Shaara's WWII series. I recommend that you pass on this one.




Lady Neferankh said...

First off, lemme say thank you ever so much for this book review, I'd heard of Bernard Cromwell, but had been rather wary of him, and your review confirms my suspicions. (I've also heard that some of his novels set in later centuries are a bit more...explicit in intimate details o.O )

While I'm not squeamish, or easily embarrassed, or entirely unacquainted with less than savory language shall we say, what you say in your review could probably be applied to a LOT of current, mainstream historical fiction. Does the author really need to be so graphic?? Even if it's done in the name of showing someone's evil deeds, we don't need a line by line description of the sin taking place. (And also, if we're old enough to be reading it, we basically "know" what "deed" is taking place, so why even bother describing it for us??)

I think the reason many of these books appeal though, is that the authors have a knack for detail, or for keeping the story going.

Ah--and your remarks about the "hero" (or anti-hero?? ), it seems that a lot of times the character being on the "good" side, or being less appallingly evil (i.e. not a cold-blooded murderer) than the enemy, means we are expected to condone, or at least accept a horde of other sins. While I know many people in history have been very flawed, there have also been some men who strove to be honorable. Thievery, lying etc; would've been frowned upon. Not to mention that most sensible men knew that STDs were rampant, and thus would've abstained from promiscuity, if only out of practical rather than moral reasons. (Personally I think authors tend to include this sort of thing because they imagine their readers want things "spiced up" ?? )

It also seems to be fashionable now, whether portraying Catholics or Protestants to take a rather cavalier attitude towards religion, and assume that people in the past had just as careless an attitude towards it as today. But that's another rant for another day * scowls *

Again though, thank you ever so much for the review--it was quite insightful! And although this book seems to have been disappointing, I hope we might have the pleasure of further reviews from you!

Lady Neferankh said...

You used to do archery too?? Gosh, I can remember when I used to practice all the time, (well not all the time but every so often) this is making me seriously try to figure out how to take it up again.

olde.fashioned said...

VERY well-written review, and you're right, it convinced me not to continue reading this book. ;-) While I did enjoy the snippet that I read (mostly I was attracted by Cornwall's style of writing...heheh) life's too short to waste it on books you already know you won't like.

And as always, I appreciate the way you handle anything "touchy" when it comes to younger readers and ladies. :-)

Rebecca said...

Ugh, I don't like Cornwell. I read his Gallows Thief years and years ago and hated it so much that I vowed never to read any of his books again. ;) Even though my friends tell me the Sharpe books are great.

You've read Shaara's The Killer Angels, right? It's not Jeff Shaara of the WWII trilogy, it's his father Michael; the book is about Gettysburg, sympathetic to both sides, pretty "clean" if I remember correctly, and very good indeed. If you haven't already read it, I recommend it - you'd probably like it.

Rebecca said...

Lady Neferankh -

Ah--and your remarks about the "hero" (or anti-hero?? ), it seems that a lot of times the character being on the "good" side, or being less appallingly evil (i.e. not a cold-blooded murderer) than the enemy, means we are expected to condone, or at least accept a horde of other sins. While I know many people in history have been very flawed, there have also been some men who strove to be honorable. Thievery, lying etc; would've been frowned upon. Not to mention that most sensible men knew that STDs were rampant, and thus would've abstained from promiscuity, if only out of practical rather than moral reasons.

I agree - to take a popular example, just because Batman is obviously the hero of The Dark Knight doesn't mean that torture is right. I think what we have to do is have the strength to acknowledge that even our heroes are flawed and do the wrong thing sometimes. They're more itneresting that way - more human. (And likewise that even "villains" can occasionally do good. If we think that life is black and white, and our enemies are the cardboard cutouts of villains that we see in so many films, they become that much harder to face.)

...but I'll stop being geeky now. :P

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

Lady Neferankh: Well, I'm delighted to have pleased you. :-)

I started having issues with it, but decided to finish the book at least. I'm doubting I'll read another Cornwell.... Sigh...I get so frustrated, don't you? A mere page in a book, scene in a film or even one word in a song can have such a spoiling quality.

And yes, I intend to write more reviews. :-D I still have my Reign of Fire review to do, I have to song reviews in the making, and perhaps two other non-fiction books maybe....

As to archery, I actually did it...uhm, a whole three times or so? I didn't continue as I wasn't interested in the modernity of it all. To me the allure of the bow is its historical significance. I don't want to use compound bows and shoot plastic arrows with neon green fledgling. I would prefer to use historical bows, such as the longbow, samurai bows, perhaps even American Indian bows, etc. but even though I have a real interest in so much of this sort of stuff, a man can only do so much. My decision in this matter is, for the most part: if it doesn't have a real application, I'm not going to take it up. As much as I'd love to, using a bow will not increase my chances for survival on the street. Another reason you see me discuss guns/knives/RBSD (Reality-Based Self-Defense) so much....

olde.fashioned: Why thank you, glad you liked it. :-D

Rebecca: Why didn't you like Gallows Thief? It wasn't Sharpe?

Oh yes, I almost did read The Killer Angels right after reading Gods and Generals but it was out of stock at my library...and although I fully intend to read and will probably enjoy it...I just haven't gotten around to it yet. :-P

Wow--good responses here!


Rebecca said...

No, Gallows Thief is a stand-alone. Now, it's been so long since I read it that I don't really remember exactly what I didn't like, but I'm guessing it was the graphic sex and casual misogyny.

Hmm, what else can I recommend...Well, I recommend Patrick O'Brian's books to everyone as a general rule. Really good characters, interesting plots (battles, but also espionage, some politics, and a little bit of Jane Austen-esque marriage plotting), intelligent humor, no graphic sex at all, little graphic violence. I think you might like them, even if one of the main characters is a liberal Catholic.

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

I've thumbed through the first O'Brian but noticed a sexual comment or that as far as it goes though? I liked the movie, so am curious....


Rebecca said...

Yes, it's just a few comments, no graphic sex at all. (If you liked the movie, know that the books are just so much better. :D)

(I will admit, there is a joke in one of the books...Stephen is thinking about the different colored plumage of male and female birds, and when Jack comes in, he asks, "Have you ever thought about sex?" - meaning the different sexes, of course, given what he's musing on - and Jack, who's a bit of a womanizer, answers with a totally straight face, "No. Sex has never entered my mind at any time." !)

olde.fashioned said...

Wow, good responses is right! There are so many things I want to reply to that I'm having to take them in order of posting date. Forgive me if this format is confusing!

Lady Neferankh: I think you've hit the nail on the head about "promiscuity" and cavalier attitudes towards religion. Those are more modern traits, and while I certainly don't think every person who lived back in the day was chaste and devout, I do think there very probably was a significantly greater number of the "pious and pure" back then than there is now. By including such instances as Cornwell has here in Agincourt he has not only crossed a line that I do not think should be crossed in fiction, but he has also breached the wall of historical realism, or at least for me. Characters in historical fiction should, at least in my opinion, behave the way their historical counterparts did.

PS. I would have tried archery, too, but the owner of the shop kept pressuring myself and my mother to go rent a bow and try it, that I refused on matter of principle. I will not be pushed, bullied, or finagled into doing something just because someone tells me to. :-P

Rebecca: You are exactly right that torture is wrong, and I hope I don't fall into the trap of accepting a sin simply because the hero of my favourite movies engages in it. But I do think that torture is a touchy issue. Biblically and morally, I think it's wrong, but what about torturing an enemy to extract information that can save innocent lives? It's a gray area, IMO.

I'm also inclined to agree with you that flawed heroes are vastly more interesting! In fact, one of my favourite GA Henty heroes was more flawed than usual, and I think he was more appealing that way. As Jane Austen's Emma was so flawed her authoress feared no one would like her, it makes a character more likeable when they have a lot to learn, but they try to work on learning it. :-)

(Oh, and I also agree with you that not everything is black and white. Life is shades of gray, and Spencer and I have gone round and round on this topic many a time. ;-P )

Spencer: A mere page in a book, scene in a film or even one word in a song can have such a spoiling quality.

ACK, I HATE THAT!!!!!!!!!

I still have my Reign of Fire review to do

*iz very much looking forward to this*

*would also love to see a review of Lorna Doone*

Rebecca again: What era is Gallows Thief set in?

I very much would like to read the Patrick O'Brian books, as I've heard so much about them and they've been compared to Jane Austen. I too have flipped through a few copies, and seen a few "remarks" (and spoilers!) but if your example is as bad as it gets then I don't think that's so horrible.

I will confess that I laughed pretty hard at the quote you shared, and I haven't even familiarized myself with Book!Jack yet. But it's rather obvious from those glances Movie!Jack takes at the native girl that he's a womanizer, methinks...

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

I also have my TDK review too...I know, I know....

Rebecca: You are exactly right that torture is wrong, and I hope I don't fall into the trap of accepting a sin simply because the hero of my favourite movies engages in it. But I do think that torture is a touchy issue. Biblically and morally, I think it's wrong, but what about torturing an enemy to extract information that can save innocent lives? It's a gray area, IMO.All I know is, I think I would have done the same thing.

Rebecca said...

olde.fashioned - You should definitely read them too! You would love them. :) (Gallows Thief is 1820 London.)

olde.fashioned and Spencer: The main problem with that approach to torture - even if you completely ignore the idea of human rights - is that the scenario it is meant to cope with is an impossible scenario.

When someone is being tortured, he or she will give up any information to make it stop. Whether it's strategy - giving up useless or false information to send the torturers on a wild-goose chase and gain time, for whatever purpose - or just a desire to end the torture - saying what he or she knows the torturers want to hear so maybe they'll stop - there is no guarantee that the information obtained by torture will be true or useful. Far from it.

So the "ticking time bomb" scenario requires that
a. law enforcement/military know that a very particular person has very particular information that they need
b. they are able to immediately verify whether the information provided by the torture victim is true or false, with no ill effects to them or to innocent people
c. despite all this information, they were unable to prevent the crime!

Now, I have more faith in our law enforcement and military than that!

There are other problems other than the obvious moral ones, which I can discuss if you want me to, but I fear this comment is already too long.

(And we all know there's no person in the real world like the Joker, played by Heath Ledger or not!)

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

Of course, and I agree. I believe torture to be wrong, and you are correct in that the information gained may be wrong. What I meant is that you have to understand how he is feeling. If someone was about to kill the love of my life....

Rebecca said...

As long as people understand that fictional scenarios shouldn't affect out positions about real life, we're all in agreement. :) (I was horrified when Justice Scalia talked about 24 in one of his opinions.)

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

I think I remember what you are mentioning, and I think I felt the same way when I heard it...but since I can't really remember I guess I can't say. :-P