I picked up Bernard Cornwell’s Agincourt at the recommendation of a friend. It is a fictonalized account of the famous medieval battle between the English and the French. A majority of the characters were real people who fought at Agincourt, but obviously their perspectives are fabricated based on real accounts. The novel centers around orphan and skilled archer Nick Hook, who becomes an outlaw after hitting a priest. Hook must flee to France, where he witnesses the English destruction of the village of Soissons. He then is enlisted to the service of an English archery company. His company is led through triumph and tragedy, ultimately culminating in the Battle of Agincourt, where they must face the massive French army.
As a history buff, I loved the amount of detail in the novel. The imagery is captivating, yet there is a wonderful balance between description and action. I never felt like the imagery slowed down my reading or dampened my enjoyment. I will say that it does help to have some familiarity with medieval weapons and geography, but I didn’t encounter any technical terms which were not explained. I feel Cornwell’s portrayal of medieval warfare and daily life was accurate based on other material I’ve read.
I also immensely enjoyed the characterization in the novel. Nick Hook is a flawed but relatable protagonist, and it did not take me long to sympathize with him. His love interest, Melisande, is a perfect example of a strong women who does not shun her femininity. She is perfectly content to cook and clean, but she also learns to shoot a bow. Even the villains provoked strong feelings in me, a sure sign of effective character development. I appreciate how Cornwell didn’t fall into the trap of writing completely stereotypical medieval characters. Melisande is far from a helpless damsel in distress, and although one of the villains is a hypocritical priest, many of the other religious figures are benevolent. Sir John, the impulsive but loyal commander of Nick’s company, was one of my favorite characters. His devotion to his men was admirable, and his wit made me laugh out loud. King Henry is a minor character, but even he is portrayed realistically, including being arrogant.
The one thing I would caution readers: this book is very descriptive, and it holds true even for violent scenes. If you are uncomfortable with rape or violence, you should probably avoid Agincourt. For the record, I didn’t find any of it gratuitous, and I think all of it enhanced the plot and fit with the setting. Medieval peasant soldiers had rough, violent lives, and this war novel is understandably graphic. That said, the book wasn’t all blood and gore; there were plenty of heartwarming and humorous scenes. Sir John and the lighthearted priest Father Christopher provided excellent comic relief.
I enjoyed Agincourt immensely, and I think it’s a must-read for all fans on medieval history, war novels, or historical fiction in general. Cornwell’s prose is compelling and descriptive, but above all, accessible and enjoyable to the average person.