Monday, November 09, 2009

Review: Agincourt

Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell

Harper, Hardcover, 2009
ISBN: 978-0061578915
464 pages

Trade Paper edition available December 29, 2009

On October 25, 1415 King Henry V led 6,000 archers and men-at-arms against a French force of 30,000 at Agincourt—and won. According to Cornwell's notes, only Hastings, Waterloo, Trafalgar, and Crécy rival Agincourt in renown. It is a gore-fest even by Cornwell's standards, and I don't recommend it for those with sensitive constitutions.

Unlike many of the English-French sweep-and-plunder skirmishes during the Hundred Years War, Henry's purpose was to "rightfully" regain the crown of France. Despite the odds against him, Henry never faltered in his belief that he would win because God told him so. From page 395:

"Henry of England was filled by a God-given joy. Never, in all his life, had he felt closer to God, and he almost pitied the men who came to be killed for they were being killed by God."

That quote bothered me because how many millions of people have died over the ages because of the same belief?

Cornwell, as usual, uses a fictional character for intrigue, to carry the story, and to have access to the bigwigs for strategy and whatnot. In Agincourt it is Nick Hook, a master archer. Anyone who has read the Grail Quest series will notice a lot of duplication about archers in this book and will be reminded of Cornwell's excellent description of the battle of Crécy.

The battle of Agincourt (Azincourt in French), does not take place until the last quarter of the book. In addition to the story's set-up and some dawdling by Cornwell, the majority of the book is about the siege of Harfleur in Normandy. Expecting a swift victory over the small walled city, the French fought brilliantly for over two weeks—decimating many of Henry's force with cannon, tunnels, and dysentery. To me, the siege of Harfleur was as interesting as the title battle.

Overall, this stand-alone book is a Cornwell festival and will please fans of historic battles and strategy.

[A belated thank you to Harper Books for the advance finished copy]

* * * * *

COMING January 19, 2010:

The Burning Land, Bernard Cornwell

Harper Books, Hardcover
ISBN 978-0060888749
352 pages

This is the fifth book in the Saxon Chronicles series.


Kim Ayres said...

The Battle of Agincourt is one of the few things that fell on the same day as my birthday. So I now expect you to review a book about The Gunfight at the OK Corral - another October 25th event :)

Charlie said...

KIM: So do people wish you a Happy Agincourt Day on your birthday?

And a belated Happy Gunfight at the OK Corral Day.

Wandering Coyote said...

So, did you like it?

My dad and younger brother are HUGE Cornwell addicts!

Jimmy Bastard said...

Have you ever wondered where 'flipping the bird' comes from Charlie?

Back in the day, archers when they were captured used to have that particular finger cut off.

Archers with a full set of digits used to taunt the enemy by 'displaying' that special finger.

savannah said...

i was just reading the st. crispin's day speech, sugar! xoxoxo

Diane said...

A friend of mine enjoyed this book as well; great review.

BTW: Thanks for joining the Reading From Your Shelves project (donating to nursing homes is a great suggestion).

Peter S. said...

Hi, Charlie! I've never read Cornwell since I've not big on historical fiction, especially those featuring wars. However, I do like to read non-fiction books about them. John Keegan's A History of Warfare is a very fascinating read. It makes you realize that, unfortunately, our history has been marked by several of these bloody episodes.

Pat said...

Sounds like a book MTL would enjoy. I'll tell him - although he tends to read his favourites over and over again.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm not sure if this is a book for me, and I am actually quite relieved, as I can no longer see past the pile of must-reads on my beside table.

Charlie said...

WC: A valid point: did I like it? Yes, and truthfully, the sentence in the review that says it got lost in editing.

Since Agincourt has been around for nine months, I suspect your dad and brother have read it.

JIMMY: I don't think Cornwell ever mentions the etiology of that phrase, nor the taunting by the five-fingered archers. Thanks for that bit of knowledge.

SAVANNAH: A coincidence? Your favorite saint? Pulling my leg?

Charlie said...

DIANE: Cornwell isn't for everyone, but he is a master at writing medieval battle scenes.

Someone else on your project mentioned womens' shelters for giveaways--another good idea.

PETER: I respect your feelings about fictionalized warfare. Cornwell is the only one in the genre that I read.

And I wonder if there has ever been a time in the history of man that there hasn't been war.

PAT: I think that's great about MTL sticking to his favorites; I have so many to read again and never get there.

BARBARA: I suggest that you get to work on that TBR pile--a bedside table can only hold so much weight before it busts.

Mary Witzl said...

I never think I'm going to like historical fiction OR non-fiction until I start reading it. Almost every single time I get fooled this way. Good thing I've got friends who won't take No for an answer.

I've always loved that story about flipping the bird. All those years ago archers did that, and people still copy them without even knowing how the custom started.

Tiffin said...

God on the other side, as well as the longbow. What WERE the French thinking!

I haven't read any Cornwell in years and years. I can highly recommend Wolf Hall though, Charlie.

Charlie said...

MARY: I suspect you've read this, but one of the best historical fiction books I've ever read is Morgan Llywelyn's The Lion of Ireland, the story of Brian Boru.

As far as flipping the bird, I would guess that very few Americans know where it came from. It's amazing, how long that "gesture" has lasted--500 years or more?

TUI: The French were thinking that God was on THEIR side, of course.

Thanks for the tip on Wolf Hall, but older Cornwell is tough to find. Now, if you'd recommended Dan Brown . . .

John D said...

Hi Charlie,

JD here - the "much lesser half" of Layers of Thought. Thanks for the review; this is a book I will definitely seek out.

I've always been fascinated by this war. Partly it's because I'm English and it's tough not to get wrapped up in the "interesting dynamics" between the English and French; partly it's my interest in history; but mostly it's the mind-boggling concept of a war that lasted well over a hundred years.

Last year I read an interesting account of the war - "A Brief History of the Hundred Years War" by Desmond Seward. It's not too brief and has plenty of deatils. ~280 pages. For anyone wanting to find out more about the war and what was going on during those times, it's a good read.

Charlie said...

JD: Thanks for stopping by, John!

To me, the Hundred Years War was one of the strangest periods in history. But having read the long version of the short history, you know much more about it than I do.

Don't forget that the English and France were at it again during the American Revolution when Lafayette came to the aid of the Americans.

I'm kind of surprised, then, that the Chunnel actually meets up in the middle.

John D said...

I'm afraid that we have been "at it again" for 1,000 years or more. It's one of the things that makes the relationship between the English and the French so simple and yet so complex. We still love to beat each other in sports, politics, business, whatever.

The last time England was successfully invaded was in 1066 after William the Conqueror whupped our King Harold at the battle of Hastings. And we haven't forgotten!

After that the English royal family had a lot of strong French ties and right there were some of the roots of the hundred years war.

I have to say the chunnel amazed me. I never thought it would happen, though we heve been sort of friends for the last 100 years or so.

Funnily enough I beieve the idea behind the chunnel dates back to Napoleanic times when Napoleon was trying to figure out a way of invading England, and he thought a tunnel might work. (That might be apocryphal but I hope not).

Of course now we're all part of the European Union and are the best of buddies. Or not.

Charlie said...

JD: It is comforting to know that the U.K. and France are friends now. It might have something to do with both countries fighting common foes in WWI and WWII, but I'm no historian.

If you read Agincourt, the French used tunnelling successfully--but nothing, of course, on the scale of the chunnel.

John D said...

Hi Charlie,

I just finished reading the book and gave Shellie a review last night, which she she should be posting that in the next few days. I really enjoyed it (despite the gore and the constant reminders of the role of religion in stoking the fires of war). Thanks for alerting me to it.

It sounds like you may have read a few of Cornwell's books. Are there any in particular that you'd recommend?


Charlie said...

JOHN: Since you enjoyed the book (and I'm glad of that because I hate to recommend stinkers), you may enjoy his "Grail Quest" trilogy—it was the first of his that I read and I couldn't put them down.

Read in this order:

"The Archer's Tale"

Cornwell is no lover of the medieval church, and for good reason. The Battle of Crecy is in this series, and it's the finest battle scene I've ever read.

My one complaint is the dearth of, or poorly drawn, maps.

Happy reading, and Happy Thanksgiving to you and Shellie.

John D said...

Excellent. Many thanks for the recommendations. I'll certainly be following up on them.

It's funny you should mention maps. I'm a total map person, for which I thank/blame my mum. We can both spend an age looking at an atlas or even road maps. Now I'm totally fascinated by Google maps which is just amazing. Not quite my mum's cup of tea though - computers remain a total mystery for her.

If the Cornwell books are lacking in decent maps, Ive got some I can refer to in the Hundred Years War book I mentioned to you in an earlier post. Saved by the books. Again.

Happy Thanksgiving,