Review of The Archer’s Tale by Bernard Cornwell

The Archer’s Tale

Bernard Cornwell

London: Harper Collins, 2005

ISBN: 10-0-06-093576-6

374 pp

In this enjoyable romp through the Hundred Years’ War, we follow the adventures of the sponymous Thomas of Hookton, who travels through France with the English army aiming to make a fortune at the expense of the unfortunate local people. Thomas has the additional goal of seeking revenge against the unknown French raiders who destroyed his home village and, also, there are some unfinished issues relating to his heritage – his father was a priest of unknown provenance and, as readers, we expect there will be gradually revealed through the course of his novel and, since the front cover presents this as the first book of the Grail Quest series, over the course of other books as well (I am going to guess it will be three altogether).

Along the way, Thomas has various adventures and the strumpet fate pushes him down and pulls him back up again. Cornwell is a veteran of the historical genre and readers may be familiar with others of his works (e.g. the Sharpe series and The Last Kingdom) which have found their way into being adapted for the screen. The characters are vivid and deployed deftly so that the villains appear when needed and the heroes have to suffer enough for us to bond with them. The language and style do not really compromise with the needs for contemporary readers to be able to understand the text without thinking much about it and there is nothing to suggest the depth of consciousness that the medieval mind might enjoy and which has been portrayed so brilliantly by Dorothy Dunnett, among others. However, as the concluding historical note observes, nearly all of the principal incidents described did in fact happen in pretty much the way that was described. These were, indeed, grim events and although the nitty-gritty of the rape and pillage is kept off the page, it is certainly there in the background.

The main theme of the book is the role of the archer, specifically the English archer – there are some Welsh archers (Pat, for example) but they have the grace to wait in the background. It seems to have been true that archers were a particularly dangerous force on the battlefield but, assuming we are not guilty of exaggerating their importance, why did other countries not seek to replicate them? Cornwell himself has no answer other than that it must have been a very difficult skill to acquire and to require very time-consuming practice and people from other countries were not up for it. There have been archery specialists in Southern Britain since Neolithic times and perhaps the yew wood was particularly helpful. Other places specialised in other forms of warfare and there are various geographic, cultural and social issues that interact with each other to produce specific forms of military practice. For example, in this book we have the well-known Genoese crossbowmen, while the French are of course busy with the flower of their chivalry. Meanwhile, I remember going to school every day past St. Mary’s Butts in Reading, at which men came to practice archery under the orders of King Edmund IV (who is featured in this book, although for some reason his vital Reading links are overlooked). It is one of the few things for which Reading is known, together with Queen Victoria’s enmity, the statue of the lion which would fall over in real life and Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment (now that the biscuit factory has closed down).

As mentioned previously, this is an enjoyable romp through history – we end up at the Battle of Crecy (spoiler alert, we English won) and there is plenty more of the story to come. There is also the Holy Grail to be found and, one suspects, some heresy and persecution to come. Fun.

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Review of Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

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Dragonfly in Amber
Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber is the second in Diana Gabaldon’s popular Outlander series and I will be spoiling the first book in this review.

The central protagonist is the Englishwoman Claire Beauchamp or Fraser whom we saw in the first book disappearing through standing stones two hundred years in the past to the time just before the Jacobite rising of 1745 and manage to survive all kinds of perils and adventures, largely thanks to the interventions of her husband Jamie Fraser. This does not mean that Claire herself is a shrinking violet but rather that there were problems and situations that might occur within pre-modern Scotland that are beyond the ability of a woman to manage, mainly as a result of the overwhelming force used in the violence that was more common in daily life. As a nurse with extensive frontline experience during WWII (the first book opens just after the conclusion of the war in 1945), Claire is neither squeamish nor disempowered in the face of unanticipated events but she lives in a world in which women have influence women have influence and the ability to change the world around them mostly from erotic power and family position, albeit there are some forms of work which can lend social cachet sufficient to discourage causal mistreatment. Nevertheless, this is something of an existentialist approach to historical fiction in that it suggests that characters might indeed have, should they be able to imagine such a thing and then to act on it, the ability to affect the world as subject rather than object of the arrow of time. This, of course, is central to the concept of time travel fiction: if there is not an obvious and immediate need to change the past, then one can soon be invented by the author. In this case, there is no need for invention since Claire, whose first and future husband, so to speak, was or will be a historian and, by virtue of sharing his research activities with her, she is well aware of the forthcoming disaster for the Scottish people that the Battle of Culloden represents. Can the two manage this while also ensuring that her future husband – Frank – will still be born despite being the descendant of the vile villain Black Jack Randall? This is the principal dynamic driving the narrative through this lengthy novel.

Indeed, at more than 900 pages, one might wonder whether the novel is a little too long, especially since it is divided quite neatly into two parts, the first in France and the second in Scotland. It seems possible that the book was originally conceived of by the author as two books but, somewhere along the production line, the decision was made that two should become one. In any case, the pace of the narrative is brisk and the voice of Claire – hers is almost entirely the point of view of the book – is an interesting and entertaining companion, even if she will occasionally stray into some kind of parallel world of romantic fiction. However, she eschews prudishness and revels in adopting a practical course of action whenever this is required of her. She ages over the course of the book but she does not really change. This could be said of all the characters who only ever become more of themselves than they already are either through experience or through revelations of past events.

There are, of course, some problems with verisimilitude. There is a man in Scotland watching daytime television in 1968. The pubs seem to be open all day in contravention to the prevailing licensing laws and seem to require (this is a perennial issue with American authors) customers to pay a bill at the end of a session rather than round by round. However, if a reader is willing to accept the basic premise that it is possible to travel back and forth through time then that reader should be able to accept the occasional anachronism – after all, all of the dialogue in the past is probably best read in the spirit of a Captain Jack Sparrow pirate accent anyway.

Overall, this is an entertaining and diverting read and I would be happy more or less (given how long it takes to read 950 odd pages) to read more of the series.

Review of Gabaldon’s Outlander

Outlander: A Novel

Diana Gabaldon

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Just after the end of World War II, Claire Randall and her husband Frank are taking a restorative break in Scotland, which enables Frank to continue with his historical research as he resumes life as an academic. Claire had a long and grueling war as a nurse on the home front and, also, overseas. What she has seen and done has, as a result, made her resourceful, tough and, inevitably, rather distant from the bourgeois civilian life to which she, like so many other women, might be expected to return. The relationship between man and wife enters a period of convalescence and there is some hope for the future when, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, Claire disappears through a set of standing stones and finds herself 200 years in the past. It is soon made quite clear to her that the past is not only akin to a foreign country but is a seriously dangerous place.

As a woman and an Englishwoman at that, during a period in which the English were occupying Scotland by force and which, as we know now, is on the verge of committing a form of genocide. Claire is not much respected by local people and must rely on others to protect her. Fortunately, she is placed in the company and custody of a young man, Jamie Fraser, whose strength and courage in the face of considerable adversity, offer Claire a means for survival. The burgeoning relationship between the two is one half of the rest of the story, with their attempts to survive the machinations of rival clans and the malevolent presence of the English officer Black Jack Randall representing the other half. It is an exciting romp through Scottish history and all the relationship bits are not as tedious as they might have been and how describing them would make it seem. I was interested to find out whether there were books to read and was slightly daunted to note that that there are at least eight others, plus additional books relating to the recent television series. The author is, apparently, from the USA and this brings with it the inevitable question of the extent to which she is able to convince the reader that we are actually in a real-life place in a specific time and context.[1] The answer to this is, of course, to a certain extent. The pace of the plot prevents too much contemplation of the scenery along the way and the Claire-Jamie relationship functions as a proxy for the culture shock between 1745 and 1945. For the rest, we are given plausible names and the occasional plausible meal and celebration but never, really, convinced of the texture of historicity as expressed by details, by the discourse and references to cultural identifiers and so forth. However, this probably will not matter to most readers because actually being in such a place would be impossibly disorientating and difficult to understand, in my opinion at least. Better just to enjoy the story for what it is and not think too much about Claire’s apparently encyclopaedic knowledge of herbs and premodern medical techniques or Jamie’s plot-friendly but implausibly impeccable French (despite the alliance, there are no French people to parade on the stage).

This is a good example of popular historical fiction and I am not surprised by the success that the author has achieved. I would be interested to read the next instalment of the series if I happen to come across it, although I am not sure I would read eight more. That would, perhaps, depend on the development of the plot. It seems unlikely that many books could have plots sustained by post-clearances highlands and the main characters will presumably travel across mainland Europe or, more likely, North America sooner rather than later. Let us see how it all trainspires.

 

[1] I am not suggesting that American authors are more or less likely to be able to achieve this but merely point out that her research does not incorporate the detailed knowledge and understanding that comes from living as part of a culture.

Review of Dunnett’s Caprice and Rondo

Caprice

My review of Dorothy Dunnett’s Caprice and Rondo has been published at Bookideas:

Caprice and Rondo is the seventh and concluding instalment of Dorothy Dunnett’s extraordinary depiction of the birth of modern capitalism The action has ranged from Iceland in the north to Timbuktu in the south and from Scotland in the west to Russia and Trebizond in the east. In other words, the protagonists have travelled the emergent trade routes that characterized the new order of finance, banking and merchandise. This is still the early stage of capitalist development, though, and the rule of law is very limited, especially in outlying (or peripheral) lands.

Read the full review here.

Review of Inoue’s Tun-Huang

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Tun-Huang is more commonly known in English as Dunhuang and it is both a city on the old Silk Road trade network and the home of a cave system where, a millennium ago, a treasure trove of variously rare and unique Buddhist texts was secreted away, to be rediscovered only in the twentieth century. The texts themselves are of extraordinary historical interest, not least because so many of the no doubt even more copious amounts of literature have been lost because the impermanency of all physical things that is a central tenet of the Buddhist philosophy has led to fire and mischance destroying so many palm leaf and paper manuscripts.

Read the full review here.

Review of The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan

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My review of Yasushi Inoue’s The Samurai Banner of Furin Kazan has been published at Bookideas:

Takeda Shingen is one of the great heroes of Japanese military history. He was the oldest son of one of the more prominent and aggressive clans wishing to expand and extend their control over more territory in the fragmented Japan of the sengoku or warring states period (1487-1573).

Read the full review here.

Review of Dunnett’s To Lie with Lions

Dunnett

This is the sixth of eight books of historical fiction telling the story of the House of Niccolo and its friends and enemies. Like the previous books – and those dealing with the Francis Lymond story – this one is lengthy, complex and packed full of plot and characterization. The most enjoyable part of Dunnett’s work is her sure-footed navigation of the minds of the people of the past and their interactions with others of different class and stature.

Read the full review at Bookideas here.