AUTHOR: Bernard Cornwell
PUBLISHER: HarperCollins Publishers Aust
TWO intriguing characters colour Bernard Cornwell's latest book, 1356.
The first is le Batard (the bastard) or Sir Thomas of Hookton, an archer and veteran of battles, including the famous Crecy.
Cornwell fans will know him from earlier books but we pick up his story easily in 1356 which is a stand-alone novel.
Thomas leads a band of mercenaries in the service of his lord and king.
"They were mercenaries and they called themselves the Hellequin, the devil's beloved, and they boasted that they could not be defeated because their souls had already been sent to hell."
Thomas is a delightfully complicated man; a priest's son now excommunicated; a warrior wed to a woman condemned as a witch.
The second character is Roland de Verrec, France's greatest tournament fighter.
He believes his strength and skill come from purity, earning him the name the "virgin knight" - but only behind his back because of the speed of his sword.
Idealistic and strikingly handsome, "Men might mock Roland, but women sighed over him".
Events in a turbulent period in French/English history bring Thomas and Roland together, first as enemies, then as curious allies.
Edward, Prince of Wales, later called The Black Prince, is burning and looting across France with the help of his much-feared long bowmen.
Into this bloody conflict, a cardinal armed with a bird that senses when someone is lying is seeking la Malice, a sword said to have belonged to St Peter.
Cornwell's story starts with the Count of Labrouillade employing Thomas and his men to capture a castle where the count's wife Bertille has fled to be with her lover.
But the count tries to cheat Thomas so le Batard makes off with Bertille.
Labrouillade sends Roland after Thomas. The cardinal, Father Marchant, also has a quest for the virgin knight - retrieve la Malice.
Quests, though, are forgotten when Roland sees Bertille... "Time had stopped, heaven was holding its breath and the virgin knight was in love".
The search for the sword propels the story to the remarkable battle of Poitiers as Thomas and his men join a badly outnumbered English army under the command of the Prince of Wales.
In a historical footnote, Cornwell points out that Poitiers "deserves a place among England's most significant military achievements".
Cornwell's story rings with historical accuracy, from his descriptions of battles, to tournaments, to small details about how arrows are made.
His characters easily capture the reader.
Thomas and Roland leap off the page and it takes barely a few sentences to endear us to the generous, romantic Prince of Wales, a well-liked military leader with a ready laugh.
It's wonderful storytelling for those who like medieval drama and action.
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