The Hundred Years’ War was a complex series of conflicts that pitted England against France from 1337 to 1453. In the fourth book in Bernard Cornwell’s Grail Quest series titled 1356, Thomas of Hookton, an excommunicated mercenary is sent on a search for an ancient holy relic that could turn the tide of war. As a mercenary, Thomas is known as Le Batard for his ruthless skills as a combat leader and archer. Thomas, however, is a legend in his own right. Excommunicated for rescuing an alleged heretic (his wife) from the torture of a clergyman, Thomas fights for the honor of his men, family, and liege lord. During battle, Thomas and his Hellequin devastate the enemy ranks with skilled archers and vicious men-at-arms.
As the story opens, Thomas and his Hellequin are told by their liege lord to find and deliver an ancient holy relic into the hands of the English. The holy relic, La Malice, is St. Peter’s sword, and it is believed to bring certain victory to whoever holds it. The Church also seeks La Malice but to bring victory to the French side. As Thomas sets about his quest, he has no idea of the treachery that closely follows his every move.
Thomas is a likeable character that is easy to connect with throughout the story. His dark past, firm leadership, and his code of ethics make him stand out in stark comparison to the cruel and greedy French lords and clergymen that hunt him down. While Thomas is clearly a brutal fighter, he also shows a distinct humanity that borderlines on chivalry when protecting his family and friends.
Another aspect that makes this novel shine is Cornwell’s amazing job of blending a fictional world with the historical events surrounding the Hundred Years’ War. The climax of the novel occurs during the Battle of Poitiers, which is widely regarded as one of the more important conflicts in the Hundred Years’ War. Through careful research and vivid imagination, Cornwell skillfully recreates this centuries old battle in a bloody, gripping, and fast paced way.
Overall, 1356 is a worthwhile entry into the historical fiction genre. I had not read any of the previous three Grail Quest novels that all detail events in Thomas of Hookton’s life. While there were times that it was clear that aspects of Thomas’ background and personality had been previously developed in other novels, I never once felt like 1356 suffered due to that lack of developmental experience. I did finish the book, and instantly went back to the first novel to catch up.
After obtaining a Masters in Liberal Arts and Literature Marcus has dedicated most of his time to teaching English Composition for a community college in the Midwest. In his down time, he spends time avidly reading an eclectic selection of books and doing freelance writing whenever he gets the chance. He lives in Kansas with his wife.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.