This is the first in the Grail Quest series of novels and I have to admit that I enjoyed it very much. I say admit because I also have to admit to a bias against Bernard Cornwell. He is just too popular, and the fourteenth century was never his period. I give in: he is a master of the genre, and can, it seems, turn his hand to any period.
Not only is his research meticulous but he has an instinct that makes him seem as at home in the period as any specialist. Like Paul Doherty, who is a fourteenth-century specialist, and has produced several novels set in ancient Egypt.
This book begins when Thomas’ village, Hookton, on the south coast of England, is wiped out by a band of French marauders. A common enough occurrence in those days leading up to the the “official” opening of the Hundred Years’ War. But why such a small village, where they had believed themselves safe? Thomas knows. It was to steal the relic, the lance of St George, that belonged to the village priest. This priest, Thomas’ father, is killed by the raiders, as is his housekeeper, Thomas’ mother. Thomas himself, whose father had sent him to Oxford to study to be a priest, but whose great love has always been archery and the great yew bows the English archers used, kills four of the attackers and survives.
Now? “Oxford could go to hell for all he cared, for Thomas had found his joy.” And his purpose in life. He would be an archer. He goes to France with the English army, intent on revenge and on fulfilling the vow he made to his father, to retrieve the lance: not made any simpler by his father’s dying words, that the Frenchman who had killed him and stolen the lance, the mysterious Harlequin, was in fact the priest’s nephew, and thus Thomas’ cousin.
The book ends with by far the best description of the Battle of Crécy I have ever read. Thomas, one of the celebrated English archers who made that battle pivotal in the history of warfare, survives it. Which takes us to Vagabond, the next in this excellent series.