three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-AgincourtBernard Cornwell is best known for his best-selling Saxon Tales series and his popular novels featuring Napoleonic rifleman Richard Sharpe. Here, he dramatizes the costly English victory during the Hundred Years War.

The Story: On October 25, 1415, King Henry V led 6,000 English troops against a French army five times its size. Instead of chronicling this massacre, the Battle of Agincourt, through the eyes of kings or noblemen, Cornwell focuses on the lowly Nicholas Hook, a wanted man in England who ends up as a mercenary defender at Soissons. After surviving, and saving a beautiful, young French nun, he joins King Henry’s army as an archer, master of the longbow, and becomes the confidant of the spectral, whispering Saint Crispinian. But as King Henry tries to claim the French crown, the English campaign flounders—and Hook and his fellow archers struggle to save their nation.
HarperCollins. 464 pages. $27.99. ISBN: 0061578916

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"There is much, beyond the well-crafted tale, to admire in Agincourt. There are striking images—Henry’s flagship, the Trinity Royal, setting sail for France is seen by Hook as ‘the size of an abbey.’ And like that image, there is the use of saint’s days rather than calendar dates, to underscore the novel’s medieval framework." Michael Kenney

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"It might not be Shakespeare, but readers who treasure James Clavell, Patrick O’Brian or Conn Iggulden will find high entertainment here, while history buffs will revel in imagining the Machiavellian politics of royalty, the startling terror of medieval combat and the twists of fate that won a battle that rivals Crecy, Trafalgar or Waterloo in history." Clayton Moore

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"By the end of this gripping novel we understand that it was the common soldier— personified by a man named Nick Hook in Mr. Cornwell’s telling—who embodied the English character and in large measure determined the outcome of its military adventures. … Far from competing with Shakespeare, these [battle] scenes offer a quiet and unobtrusive homage to theatrical moments already seared into our collective consciousness." Ronald F. Maxwell

San Antonio Exp-News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Cornwell blends his characters into the fragrant and coarse Middle Ages civilization and rounds out his story with appropriate timeless themes. … Cornwell’s narrative is grisly at times, and the author displays a flair for inventing colorful and obscene medieval insults." David Hendricks

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is a book for those who like nonstop action, preferably drenched in blood, mud and bad language. … The real star of the show is the final battle, which is carried out in such painstaking detail that you can feel the liquid—you should hope it’s only sweat—trickling down the inside of your armor." Diana Gabaldon

Charlotte Observer 3 of 5 Stars
"Agincourt bristles with arrows, and by the final pages the reader will know more than is necessary about their construction, maintenance and lethal efficiency. … But it must also be said that the fictional aspects of Agincourt are its weakest qualities—Nicholas Hook is not nearly as intriguing as the famous battle in which he fights." Sam Shapiro

Critical Summary

Shakespeare immortalized Agincourt in his historical play, King Henry V, through the eyes of England’s king. Although King Henry still makes some prominent appearances, Agincourt examines this battle from the perspective of a common soldier. Critics agreed that the nonstop action and gory violence may not appeal to all readers. But those interested in military historical fiction will find Agincourt a compelling read that exposes the hunger, cold, blood, and scheming power plays of battle. A few reviewers faulted the two-dimensional characterization, others the convoluted subplots, and still others a biased English perspective, but readers interested in the topic will find Agincourt an intriguing supplement to Shakespeare’s work.