1356, by Bernard Cornwell
What happens when a fight for a kingdom meets a fight for control of one of the most powerful objects known to man? With 1356, Bernard Cornwell answers that question. As the fourth installment of the Grail Quest series, it unites medieval state and church conflicts, creating a riveting story where guile and steel determine the fate of western Europe.
England and France are at war. Amid the chaos of England’s unchallenged attacks across France, a monk rescues la Malice, a holy sword said to make its wielder the lord of the land, and together the man and the relic vanish. Elsewhere, Sir Thomas of Hookton, an English archer and commander of a mercenary company, completes a contract for the French before receiving orders to find la Malice and retrieve it for the English. Yet Cardinal Bessières and Father Marchant, two corrupted churchmen, also begin hunting for the relic on behalf of the king of France. Thomas, his company, and his family set out to find la Malice, but the French kidnap Thomas’ wife and son, temporarily forcing him to abandon the hunt. A host of other characters soon join the struggle for possession of the sword, and Thomas rushes to beat them to Poitiers, where it is believed to be hidden. But the English and French armies are also moving toward Poitiers, and it seems that a battle is inevitable.
In part, this book is enjoyable because its plot is so layered. Just when it seems that things can’t possibly get any more complicated, they do, and readers wonder how the characters will get out of each tight spot. The plot draws in the reader through the kidnapping, the dash for the relic, the frequent battles, and all the political messiness. It’s definitely not a book to read before bed because you will stay up later than you intended just to see what happens next.
The plot is strong on its own, but the setting is a major contributor in making the book so gripping. It’s obvious that these Middle Ages are not the romanticized version with knights in shining armor prancing about and being chivalrous. Instead, war has ravaged the country, no one is safe, and knights and soldiers are the biggest threat to everyone. This version is much truer to history; it’s dark, visceral, and foreboding. The travel scenes are wonderfully tense, and readers hope that the characters will reach their destination without being attacked by the enemy.
Battles receive solid attention and great description, and, like the feeling of the overall setting, they are dark and grim places where people get killed in terrible ways. It’s horrifying, but it seems like it’s meant to be that way to depict the realistic brutality of war. Consequently, the stakes become tremendously high, and it’s easy to see that anyone, including the protagonists, can be harmed. Together, the vivid descriptions and the horrific tension make the reader simultaneously wish that there were more and that the fights were over as quickly as possible so the characters can get out safely.
Attachment to and investment in the characters doesn’t stop with the battle scenes, though, partly because Cornwell handles them well throughout the entire book. Thomas’ character is fairly well-developed as a hardened soldier, a loving family man, and an amateur theologian. It’s nice to see a soldier who doesn’t conform to the stereotype, especially in a medieval setting. The plot further encourages the reader to become attached to other characters, such as Sir Roland de Verrac and Sir Robbie Douglas. These men simply want to do what’s virtuous and right in a mixed-up world, but they’re forced to fight for it every step of the way. At the same time, the villains are easily hated; Cardinal Bessières and Father Marchant are positively vile, but they seem convinced that what they’re doing is right, making them more believable as antagonists.
Even though it’s easy to get attached to some of the characters, the book occasionally struggles in how it handles them. Some of the characters, especially the women, feel a little flat. Thomas’ wife serves almost no purpose except to get kidnapped and act as a plot device. Sure, she serves as a voice of virtue and reason, but that’s about it. The story is set in the Middle Ages, though, so it’s somewhat realistic for women to have little agency. Regardless, it would have been nice to see Cornwell make the female characters an exception, even if only slightly. Similarly, some of the “minor villains,” especially Lord Douglas, can appear a little caricatured at times. He’s often angry and impatient, and it gets to the point where he’s almost not a believable character anymore.
For the most part, 1356 is a lively adventure story. Readers will easily enjoy the tense conflict that pits English against French and good against evil. Altogether, Cornwell crafts a well-depicted (and mostly accurate) piece of historical fiction, taking readers on a fantastic trip to the fourteenth century.
By Bernard Cornwell
432 pp. HarperCollins Publishers, 2013. $28.99 (hardback)