I like to read classics, historical fiction and world lit. Oh and I love short stories.
I finally caved in and picked up one of Cornwell's book after incessent claims that he's one of the best historical fiction authors. Someone who does good research to create his novels, or so they say. I wanted to read one of his medieval fictions, as that's my favorite period, and due to the poor selection in my local bookshop, I ended up with the only available title: Azincourt.
The overall story of archer Nicolas Hook is a straightforward one about flat characters, which is fine for the purpose they serve. After all, Cornwell uses them as a vehicle to tell the story of Henry's campaign and the battle of Azincourt. The characters are likable enough and their personal story arcs are pleasant breaks from the battlescenes that make up the rest of the book.
The action sequences are very well written and are the parts I felt most engaged with the story and the characters. It is clear that the battle descriptions are Cornwell's forte. The other elements of Henry's campaign are less engrossing in their description. Cornwell fails to evoque the despair and horrors the English suffered during the siege due to the dysentery. He only writes - over and over - that shit was everywhere and that people where shitting. The disastrous impact this "shitfest" had on the army - the many many deaths and the impact on their morale - failed to come across to me as the reader.
Yet it is not Cornwell's writing that landed him 1.5 star. It was his research and how he incorporated that into his story.
Research (this is the part with spoilers)
Cornwell clearly likes this period and is fascinated by the longbow archers. In the first part of the book, I loved reading the book. His archer Nicolas was developing as a character and learning about the war going on in France. At the same time, the reader learns more about his trade. Cornwell weaves the information on longbows and arrows naturally into the story. This was definitely a part of his research and his skills as an historical fiction writer I greatly enjoyed. It ties into his skill for writing battle scenes: his forte is military history and the experiences of the common soldier and how to convey that to the reader.
However, on other points he struggled to integrate his research into the story. He falls into the trap of telling instead of showing a number of times, and describes certain aspects of the campaign in detail while the reader does not necessarily need it for the story or its background. Furthermore, in order to give more background, Cornwell switches perspective a number of times, from the perspective of Nicolas Hook to an omniscent point of view. And sometimes, Cornwell is so keen to show off his research, the structure of the story suffers.
Particularly this clumsy example of switching the perspective bothered me, when describing the golden chain worn by Henry V, Cornwell slips up in perspective going from Nicolas' perspective to omniscent pov: "the antelope was another of his personal badges, though Hook, seeing the badge, neither knew what the beast was nor that it was the king's private insignia." (p. 160)
Or he mentions a piece of information which Nicolas should have known waaaaay earlier in the story:
"'Then stay with the goddams,' Lanferelle said harshly (...)
'The goddams?' Hook asked.
'It's what the French call you English,' she said" (p. 308-309)
At this point they're halfway through Henry's campaign and Hook spend a long time in Soissons among the French, yet he never heard the French call him "goddam"? I do not believe it. Dear Cornwell, you're only telling us this now because it's a slow point in the story and you need to entertain us with fun facts.
Thus, at times, Cornwell is rather sloppy with writing his research into the story. And then we get to the parts which he clearly did not research thoroughly. Because, while he describes the campaign and the English perspective in great detail, when it comes to his description of the political situation in France, Cornwell reduces it to gross oversimplifications. The political situation was extremely complicated and bewildering, even for people directly involved, but I never get a sense of that bewilderment. It is completely clear to Hook and his fellow characters.
I'm also rather surprised he doesn't seem to have a grip on the concept of medieval chivalry, especially considering his extensive knowledge of military history displayed in the archer's story. He seems to have a view of chivalry as some don Quichotesque code of honor which is most definitely not what medieval chivalry was (I'll won't make any assessments on 19th century beliefs of "chivalrous behavior).
I'm rather disappointed that Cornwell - so well educated in military history - fails to comprehend the medieval laws of war and chivalry and joins the ranks of those before him to beat (late) medieval chivalry with a stick for being unpractical in battle and Don Quichote-esque, instead of doing some legwork in recent academic writing on the subject.
Then there are points on which it is clear Cornwell did not research a certain topic at all. Such as medieval views on hygiene, where he insists on supporting the myth that medieval people disliked taking baths. Nor is he particularly careful about how many French people are able to speak English. In the beginning of the story, he offers an explanation why a certain character would be able to speak a few words of English, but by the time we meet Boucicaut, he starts speaking English without any further explanation. WHY would a French nobleman be able to speak such an unimportant language? Anyone English that would matter to a man like Boucicaut would be able to speak French. Though in Cornwell's world, it seems to be the other way around: anyone who matters to his story will be able to speak English.
All these points together make me draw the conclusion that Cornwell only researched two topics that were relevant to this novel: the sequence of events during Henry's campaign and the battle of Azincourt and the craft and skills of longbow archers. Sadly, he did not research - or not as thoroughly - any other aspect of life at the time. Perhaps that's not what the average Cornwell reader is looking for. Perhaps they're just looking for a military romp set in some distant past, regardless of historical accuracy of anything else. In which case I'd have to conclude that Cornwell isn't the writer for me. I'm looking for a higher standard of historical accuracy in my historical fiction. And for someone who clearly takes great pleasure in retelling historical events and packing historical details into his story, I feel Cornwell falls short due to the hampering inaccuracies and general sloppiness in which he incorporated his research into the story.
However, even with regards to a military romp I felt the story fell short. It is not a particularly interesting or novel retelling of Henry's campaign. It didn't show us a side to this historical event which we didn't already know, or which hasn't yet been explored. So, all in all a disappointment for me.
Some reviews (on GR) say this is not his best work, and perhaps I will read other novels by Cornwell in the future, but I will not pick up any of his other medieval works.