Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell


Bernard Cornwell has written over forty novels, most of them historical in nature.  Perhaps best known are his Sharpe stories, which tell of the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars.  Cornwell has also written series depicting events during the time of King Arthur, 9th-century Anglo-Saxon England and the American Revolution.  His latest novel, Agincourt, is a stand-alone book written about Henry V and the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.

The battle of Agincourt (October, 1415) has been featured in numerous works of fiction (it is the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V), has been the subject of extensive historical research and analysis and remains a source of pride for the English to this day.  The victory is remarkable because the English army was greatly outnumbered by the French (the exact numbers are a source of debate, but Cornwell uses the generally accepted 5,900 English v. 30,000 French).  It is also noteworthy due to the number of casualties (very few English and a significant number of French) as well as the number of French lords who were either killed or captured.  The English army had just completed a month-long seige of the seaside town of Harfleur, had traveled over 250 miles by foot and were suffering from both hunger and dysentery.  Credit for the victory is given in large part to the English archers.  About 5,000 of England’s 5,900 were commoners wielding longbows.  There were other factors involved, but I’ll refrain from mentioning them for anyone unfamiliar with the history and wanting to read the book.

The fiction portions of the book are only average.  The main character, Thomas Hook, is an English archer who has been outlawed for hitting a priest.  He travels to France and finds himself fighting for the Duke of Burgundy against the French king in Soissons.  During the battle he manages to save a French novice and narrowly escapes the traitorous massacre thanks to the voices in his head (he later decides the voices are Saints Crispin and Crispinian…the significance appears later).  Eventually Hook and the novice, Melisande, make their way back to England and Hook finds a place under Sir John Cornwaille’s command in King Henry’s army as Henry prepares to invade France.  Hook’s point of view serves as a familiar vehicle for the historical action.  The fictional characters move the story forward and make slow parts more engaging.  Cornwell is also very good at writing humor into fiction.  The wise cracks were unexpected but enjoyable.

I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the descriptions of the seige engines and the tactics of war.  The violence seemed a bit gratuitous (there were an awful lot of eyeballs getting popped and sliced) though I guess that’s probably accurate.  I would recommend Agincourt for its great descriptions of 15th century armor, weaponry and tactics. (Cannons were beginning to play a major role in battles during this time, and their volatile unpredictability makes for some grisly situations.)

Agincourt is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.99

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah


A Long Way Gone is Ishmael Beah’s autobiographical retelling of his experiences as a child soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s.  As a child Ishmael lived a relatively happy and normal life with his family in Mogbwemo, a small west African village.  He attended school and was an excellent student.  He enjoyed American rap music and would choreograph dances and performances to the music of his favorite artists with his older brother and friends.  They played sports, hunted birds with slingshots, went to the movies in nearby Mattru Jong and watched curiously as refugees passed through with tales of war that seemed exaggerated at the time.

When Ishmael was twelve the rebel army (RUF) attacked Mattru Jong and surrounding villages.  Ishmael, his brother and their small group of friends escaped capture and traveled on foot looking for food and survivors.  Eventually, after spending a year on the run in the wilderness and without finding his family, Ishmael was picked up by the government army, given a gun and trained as a soldier.  After two years of fighting, at the age of fifteen, he was removed by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center to begin the process of healing, detoxification and self-forgiveness.

The way the book is written is interesting:  Ishmael writes in first person while describing the time period that he was a refugee, and also the time in the rehabilitation center.  However, while writing about the two-year period that he was a soldier, he writes in a series of flashbacks and memories.  I wonder if he chose to write this way because he prefers to keep that time more distant from himself or because it really is harder for him to remember (the army kept their soldiers high on amphetamines and brown-brown, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder).  Whatever the reason, I appreciated it because some of his acts were so atrocious that the distance is necessary to see this person as someone who has been rehabilitated.  The reader is still made completely aware of the depth of horror, without it becoming gratuitously violent.  I’m really amazed that someone could go through what he did and then re-learn how to have a reverence for human life again…is that a trait of humanity in general, of the culture, of youth or of the individual?

Ishmael never found any surviving members of his immediate family.  In 1998 he escaped Sierra Leone and moved to the United States to live with a foster family.  He graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 and is a speaker and activist dedicated to helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society and improve their lives.

A Long Way Gone is one of those books that everyone should read.  It should be added to high school and college history classes that cover recent events (I’m sure some teachers and professors already require it) and it may even be a useful resource for psychology courses covering child psychology.  I highly recommend this book for all adults and teenagers.  The descriptions, details and metaphors are unique and emotionally stimulating.  This is an important story told by an honest and gifted narrator who has roots in a culture of storytellers.

Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead


As the fourth person in the family to read this novel I gave this one a 4 out of 6 on the “Christmas Bag” scale.  The comments of the previous readers (my parents and my husband) were mixed and rather lukewarm so I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did.  It’s always nice to be surprised.

Coal Black Horse is the story of Robey Childs, a fourteen year-old boy who lives with his mother on their small farm in the West Virginia mountains during the time of the American Civil War.  His father has been away fighting for many months.  His mother has a premonition of his father’s death and sends Robey, her only child, to bring her husband home before he can be harmed.  The novel follows Robey as he sets out as an innocent boy and tells how he is forced to mature quickly as he learns difficult lessons about human nature, death and the horrors of war.  Through a stroke of luck or fate, he acquires a magnificent coal black horse which proves a great source of strength throughout his journey as he searches for his father.

Robey’s search takes him to Gettysburg, just a day or two after the battle there and the descriptions of the battlefield are really amazing…I don’t recall having read anything of this era that compares.  Olmstead seems intent on portraying the scenes of war as grisly and macabre, but also as beautifully human.  He refrains from romanticizing, but acknowledges that for many men and boys, war was the greatest, most magnificent adventure.  In addition to the factual descriptions of the instruments of war (weapons, soldiers and officers), attention is given to the effects of war on the people around the destruction.  The scavengers, extortionists, deserters, bereaved, bystanders and tourists…all are included to complete the portrait of a country gripped by anger and fear.  It’s the rare moments of compassion within the novel that give both Robey and reader hope that humanity will survive and remember how to forgive, love and trust.   

I have heard criticisms that the descriptions in the book are tedious and occasionally unnecessary.  I did not find that to be the case at all.  Once I was engaged in the story, which didn’t take long, the descriptions were very compelling, always relevant and really, the spirit of the book that carried the plot from one drama to the next.  Olmstead writes with a truth and poignancy that brings the reader as close to the war-ravaged people as is possible.

Coal Black Horse is a winner of the Heartland Literary Prize.  Robert Olmstead is the author of five previous books (River Dogs, Soft Water, A Trail of Heart’s Blood Wherever We Go, America By Land and Stay Here With Me.  He has hinted at a sequel to Coal Black Horse.  The trade paperback edition, which is available at noteBooks for $13.95 includes an interview with the author and a reader’s guide.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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