GALLOWS THIEF by Bernard Cornwell (Review)

Rider Sandman, late Captain of the 52nd Regiment, hero of Waterloo, and also of this book, does not appear in the Prologue. That is a vivid, almost too vivid, description of a hanging at Newgate. The repulsive hangman, the victims, one of them a girl accused of stealing a necklace from her mistress, crying and protesting her innocence till the awful end (rightly, it turns out, the necklace is later found behind a sofa – too late, but nobody seems to care). (Sorry about that “spoiler”, but you just know she is innocent anyway.)

Then we meet Captain Sandman, who is also a cricketing hero – yes, really! – but penniless because his father seems to have lost everything, money, title and all, then died, and Sandman had to sell his army commission to provide his mother and sister with money to live on.

Now he is staying at the cheapest lodgings he can find, sharing it with thieves and prostitutes such as the irrepressible Sally. The contrast between his very proper and correct attitude and her very improper approach to life is perfect, while the difference between her cockney thieves’ slang (the “flash” language) and his posh English is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

But there is not only Sally, the whore and would-be actress, there is Rider Sandman’s one true love, Sir Henry Forrest’s daughter Eleanor, for whom her mother (for obvious reasons) no longer considers Sandman good enough.

And there is the Countess of Avebury, an ex-dancer who managed to marry one of her admirers, but is murdered while having her portrait painted.

The artist is duly tried, convicted and condemned. But then Sandman is recruited to investigate the case becasue someone in high places has petitioned on the artist’s behalf. Sandman is at first unenthusiastic, believing the artist, Charles Corday, to be guilty of rape and murder. Then he goes to Newgate and meets him, and changes his mind – and has only days to find the true murderer.

I loved it, and love that immediate post-Napoleonic-Wars period. It reminded me of Daughter of the Game, which is brilliant – nothing can compare with the ex-prostitute heroine of that book – but Cornwell is better – he is the best! – at poverty and sleaze, life as it really was.

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HERETIC by Bernard Cornwell (Review)

Heretic is the third book in the Grail Quest series, following on from Harlequin and Vagabond.

The fighting in France continues, for these are the opening rounds of the Hundred Years War. The Prologue (thirty pages long) tells the story of the seige and surrender of Calais in 1347. It was to stay in English hands for the next three centuries.

After the seige is over, Thomas of Hookton heads south into the County of Berat in Gascony with his Scottish friend Robbie Douglas and a band of English archers. He is under orders from the Earl of Northampton. He is to retake the fortress of Castillon d’Arbizon and make that his base while he carries on his quest for the Holy Grail, which he does not really believe in; in reality, Thomas seeks his cousin Guy Vexille, who murdered Thomas’s father, and later his wife. Vexille does believe in the existence of the Grail, and he thinks Thomas can lead him to it. They are in effect hunting each other, going round in circles.

When Thomas arrives in Berat, and takes control of Castillon d’Arbizon, he finds himself responsible for carrying out an execution by burning scheduled for next morning. When he asks why exactly  the heretic was condemned, Father Medous, the priest, answers: ‘Cattle died,’ he said, ‘and she cursed a man’s wife.’

Thomas looked mildly surprised. ‘Cattle die in England,’ he said, ‘and I have cursed a man’s wife. Does that make me a heretic?’
‘She can tell the future!’ Medous protested.
[…]
‘What future did she see?’ Thomas asked.
‘Death.’ It was Lorret who answered. ‘She said the town would fill with corpses and we would lie in the streets unburied.’

In the end, he refuses to let them burn her. Why? Because the condemned woman, Genevieve, is young and beautiful? Thomas is not sure. After all, he is nothing if not orthodox in his beliefs. And the next thing he knows, he too is being excommunicated – for sheltering a heretic. But Genevieve is unimpressed: ‘Excommunication means nothing.’

‘It means everything,’ Thomas said sullenly. ‘It means no heaven and no God, no salvation and no hope, everything.’

After some more typically Bernard Cornwell action, a pestilence arrives in France from Italy. It is the Black Death, though people do not of course know that at the time: they just see Genevieve’s prophecy coming true all around them as the town becomes filled with the dead and the dying.

An excellent culmination to this exciting series; and the ending is totally satisfying on all counts.

PS I don’t usually do long quotes, but here is a passage I know I will always remember and would like to share:

‘Genevieve!’ he shouted. ‘Genevieve!’
Then he saw her.
Or rather, in the instant glare of a splintering streak of lightning, he saw a vision. He saw a woman, tall and silver and naked, standing with her arms raised to the sky’s white fire. The lightning went, yet the image of the woman stayed in Thomas’s head, glowing, and then the lightning struck again, slamming into the eastern hills, and Genevieve had her head back, her hair was unbound, and the water streamed from it like drops of liquid silver.
She was dancing naked beneath the lightning.
She did not like to be naked with him. She hated the scars that Father Roubert had seared into her arms and legs and down her back, yet now she danced naked, a slow dance, her face tilted back to the downpour, and Thomas watched in each successive lightning flash and he thought she was indeed a draga. She was the wild silver creature of the dark, the shining woman who was dangerous and beautiful and strange. Thomas crouched, gazing, thinking that his soul was in greater peril still for Father Medous had said the dragas were the devil’s creatures, yet he loved her too; and then the thunder filled the air to shake the hills and he squatted lower, his eyes fast closed. He was doomed, he thought, doomed, and that knowledge filled him with utter hopelessness.
‘Thomas.’ Genevieve was stooping in front of him now, her hands cradling his face. ‘Thomas.’
‘You’re a draga,’ he said, his eyes still closed.
‘I wish I was,’ she said. ‘I wish flowers would grow where I walked. But I’m not. I just danced under the lightning and the thunder spoke to me.’
He shuddered. ‘What did it say?’
She put her arms round him, comforting him. ‘That all will be well.’
He said nothing.
‘All will be well,’ Genevieve said again, ‘because the thunder does not lie if you dance to it. It is a promise, my love, it is a promise. That all will be well.’

VAGABOND by Bernard Cornwell (Review)

Vagabond is the second book (the first is Harlequin) in the ongoing story of Thomas of Hookton. It starts in the north of England, where Thomas, his French woman, Eleanor, who is now pregnant, and his friend the priest Father Hobbe, have travelled to Durham in search of information about Thomas’s mysterious father.

Once again, the story is full of such medieval outsiders as an English archer who is the bastard son of a half-mad priest with an aristocratic French background that includes rumours of Cathar ancestors and of knowledge of the Holy Grail; the beautiful widow of a French nobleman, now an outcast because of her low birth and the rumour that her mother was Jewish; and a mad Dominican Inquisitor, obsessed with the Grail,

In Durham, Thomas becomes involved in a battle with invading Scots led by Sir William Douglas, and after the battle it is Douglas’s nephew Robbie who accompanies Thomas back to Hookton and then on to Guernsey and so to Brittany.

What have they in common? They are both hunting Guy Vexille, Thomas’s cousin and arch-enemy, the murderer of Thomas’s father. Guy Vexille also murdered Robbie’s brother. But Vexille himself is now accompanied by a Dominican Inquisitor, Bernard de Taillebourg, who, in turn, is hunting Thomas. This is Vexille speaking of de Taillebourg when Thomas is their prisoner: ‘He likes burning people […] He does like it. I have watched him. He shudders as the flesh bubbles.’

You can’t get much worse than this priest, you think, as you read about de Taillebourg. But wait till you meet Cardinal Louis Bessières, de Taillebourg’s master. Here he is walking by the Seine on a sunny winter morning:

A legless man with wooden blocks on his stumps swung on short crutches across the road and held out a dirty hand towards the Cardinal whose servants rushed at the man with their staves. ‘No, no!’ the Cardinal called and felt in his purse for some coins. ‘God’s blessing on you, my son,’ he said. Cardinal Bessières liked giving alms, he liked the melting gratitude on the faces of the poor, and he especially liked their look of relief when he called off his servants a heartbeat before they used their staves. Sometimes the Cardinal paused just a fraction too long and he liked that too. But today was a warm, sunlit day stolen from a grey winter and so he was in a kindly mood.

And as always in Cornwell’s books, along with the great characters, such vivid descriptions of seiges and battles that you feel you were there. Another great read.

HARLEQUIN by Bernard Cornwell (Review)

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.