© 2003 Bernard Cornwell
The year is 1347, and the English armies of Edward III are prevailing in France, having invaded to protect old Norman lands and capture new ones like the new port-city of Calais. The Hundred Years' War is ten years old, and as the Black Death works its way up the French coast, truce is in the air. The peace is not so firm that the English can't get away with the odd raid, though, which is why Thomas Hookton -- bastard son of a priest and a master of the longbow -- has been sent by his master the Earl of Northampton to seize an old family territory in southern France. The goal is not the castle or the surrounding county, but the most precious relic in Christian legends, the Holy Grail. It was rumored by Hookton's father to last rest in the castle, and the Earl believes it still lies there or nearby. Finding the Grail would be a propaganda boon to the English, especially in times of pestilence, and so Hookton and his men -- a few knights, supported by men-at-arms and longbowmen -- launch a daring attack against the castle. They aren't alone in seeking the grail, for Thomas' homicidally zealous cousin and his French kinsmen also want to find the Grail -- and they're willing to forge a new one if need be. Thomas is alone, deep in enemy territory and surrounded by raiders, ambitious nobles, and corrupt priests -- and after he is excommunicated for saving the life of a young woman condemned to burn to death for violating orthodoxy, even his friends turn against him.
Heretic is the first bit of medieval fiction I've ever read, though I've long been tempted to try any of Cecelia Holland's various novels. I've read Cornwell before, in Sharpe's Eagle, and enjoyed him -- but this book is first-rate. I have read few historical novels that drew me into their environment like this; I could feel the cold rain constantly drizzling, smell the damp hay, hear the constant flurry of arrows and clang of swords against armor while in the distance, a cannon named the Hell Spitter booms with intermittent fury. Hookton is both authentic and likable, and travels through a land rich in details.This book is apparently part of a trilogy (my copy doesn't have the red bar atop it advertising it as such), but the book has enough subtle background information in it to stand alone. I had no idea how the book would end, particularly in regards to the grail, and as soon as I thought I knew Cornwell's angle he changed tacks.
Easy recommendation to historical literature readers with an interest in the medieval period: I'll definitely be reading more Cornwell.