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.