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Last year, Bernard Cornwell introduced Thomas of Hookton, a young
English archer. He filled the pages with great adventure, gory
battle scenes, distressed damsels, armored knights, wayward bishops
and beleaguered castles. Now, Thomas returns to England after a
victory in the famed battle at Crecy, France. He bears a letter
from the bishop and King Edward III that is meant to gain him an
audience with an old priest who, it's been rumored, has knowledge
of the Holy Grail --- the object of Thomas's quest. Of course, he
must fight his way there. After the surprising outcome of the
battle at Durham, Thomas forms an odd alliance with Scotsman Robbie
Douglas. The two set out on their crusade, a crusade of revenge for
several recent deaths, coupled with the hunt for the holy treasure.
Their journey takes them back to Hookton first, where Thomas
recovers a book written by Father Ralph, his father, who was killed
by cousin Guy Vexille (in the opening of THE ARCHER'S TALE). The
tome, an apparent clue in the puzzle of the Grail's whereabouts,
baffles Thomas --- and later, others --- with its cryptic passages.
With book in hand, he and Robbie make the perilous crossing to
France over stormy seas, dodging pirates and French war ships,
forced into the fray upon landing. They hook up with some of
Thomas's old friends and fight some new battles. The quest
continues --- and probably will again in Cornwell's third
installment in the Grail Series, which is sure to be as eagerly
awaited once readers have feasted on VAGABOND.

Cornwell recreates, with brutal realism, the battles stretching
across 1346 and 1347. He vividly imagines the gruesome skirmishes,
flaying his readers open with horrific details. The most feared
battlefield weapon, the longbow, comes into bright focus through
Cornwell's words. I gained a new respect for archers. While I am no
fan of war stories (due mostly to a squeamish temperament), the
tale of young Thomas is utterly captivating. Despite the repugnance
of the cruelest scenes, I reminded myself that the violence and
savagery are an integral part of the story. In truth, it would be
hard to call it a war if there was no pain, carnage or death.

Before the fighting, the men are whipped into a frenzy with
exhortations of "Kill them! Kill them all! The lord will reward you
for every Englishman (or Scotsman, or Frenchman) slaughtered!" The
hatred is fierce and very personal. Without knowing the enemy's
face, swordsmen slash with heated vehemence at their opposition,
butchering men and animals, all in the name of righteousness. It
struck me as a medieval jihad and hammered home the point that man
has been fighting holy wars for centuries. Despite the ugliness of
the subject, VAGABOND reads fast and leaves one immensely satisfied
with the story.

It is indeed a pleasure learning to love history through Bernard
Cornwell's work. He takes an otherwise dry subject (to me, at
least), works his storytelling magic and turns it into high
entertainment. I greedily look forward to being among his audience
when he releases the next in the series.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 24, 2011

by Bernard Cornwell

  • Publication Date: December 1, 2002
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0066210801
  • ISBN-13: 9780066210803