© 2013 Bernard Cornwell
It's the year..well, 1356, and after a lull in the fighting, the Hundred Years War is about to resume. England is having a merrie old time raiding the French countryside, setting fire to every structure and peasant they can find, and carting it all back to Calais. Somewhat chuffed, the French king has at last decided to take action. His goal: capture the Black Prince, young Edward, and use him as a ransom to force the English to recoup France its losses in land and goods, and end the war. With an overwhelming advantage in numbers, and the wisdom learned after numerous defeats (to wit: don't make it easy for the English archers by riding massive targets into battle), France seems poised for a momentous victory at Poitiers...but then comes Thomas of Hookton, the knighted leader of a group of archers who call themselves the Damned.
Thomas is known to readers of Cornwell as the bastard son of a priest ("the devil's whelp") who rose from the ranks as a common archer to the leader of men, and one who found the Holy Grail, to boot. 1356 sees him on a mission to ensure that the French don't recover a relic known as la Malice, the sword that Simon Peter used to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. His rival is his opposite, a golden-haired idealistic virgin who fancies himself an actor in some heroic quest, fighting dragons and demons and restoring France to glory. These two opposites -- Cap'n Mal and Captain Hammer, if you will -- meet first in battle over a woman, as a young countess has decided to run off with another knight, one who isn't her morbidly obese and stupidly cruel husband. The Virgin Knight, Sir Roland, sees it as his duty to restore a naughty adulteress to her god-given master, hubby dear, and Thomas rescues her while shaking the count down for unpaid debts. (The aristocracy may sneer at Thomas' band of common longbowman, but they're willing to pay a rich price to enlist their service.). While Thomas and Roland seek la Malice and spar over the woman, each trying to avoid capture and death while traveling through a war zone -- the English and French armies move to engage with one another, and eventually Thomas takes his place on the battle lines, where he fights desperately and accomplishes stunning deeds -- as Cornwell's heroes are wont to do.
Cornwell's strengths as a writer aren't missing here: his scenes are rich with detail, the dialogue is lively and hilarious, the prose commands the reader's emotions, the battles are intense. He's wonderful -- but what I liked most about 1356 was Thomas' foe, Roland. The two are on opposite sides throughout most of the novel, but it's not as if Roland is a bad guy. He's committed to Doing the Right Thing; like Thomas, he has a talent for fighting and enjoys the competition. But Roland is an innocent, not for his 'virgin' status but because he thinks the world is a fairy tale, in which he is Prince Charming. He undergoes a fair bit of character development as the tale goes on, learning how truly contemptible 'noble' rulers can act, and how virtuous the damned can be,
1356 is another rollicking story of war, love, and mischevious monks.