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Agincourt    by Bernard Cornwell order for
by Bernard Cornwell
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Harper, 2009 (2009)
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* * *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

Few battles in world history are remembered by name - the Battle of Hastings is one; the Battle of Trafalgar another; the Battle of Thermopylae perhaps another. Then there is the Battle of Agincourt (or Azincourt, as it is known in French), which took place on October 25th, 1415. For many, William Shakespeare springs to mind with his immortal play, Henry V, and 'we few, we happy few.' Or perhaps the image of Kenneth Branagh making a memorable performance as the king who battled seemingly unbeatable odds, with the few triumphing over the many. Now Bernard Cornwell has written his version in his classic, skillful style.

It was a stunning and in some ways incomprehensible victory of the British over the French during the Hundred Years War. And what was the key? The British longbow. Cornwell has already explored the beauty and importance of this historical weapon in his Grail Quest series. He returns to it with one of his strongest leads yet in Nicholas Hook. Along with most of the other characters in the book, the name is real, taken from a list of archers of the time. But Cornwell is not simply spinning a great yarn from a relatively unknown piece of history. The Hundred Years War, and in particular the Battle of Agincourt, is well documented. In Agincourt, we do not see the familiar heroes surmounting the odds; many die, many suffer. It is a bloody, harsh reality, this war, that in some cases will leave the reader stunned with Cornwell's graphic description.

In Cornwell's best piece of writing to date, he doesn't hold back, giving many gritty details and revealing a tough and sad world. But ultimately we know the British eventually triumphed; it makes for a much needed and happy conclusion to this ugly battle that left so many dead. Agincourt is a special book that deserves a place on any medieval historian's or medieval fan's shelf, as well as an important spot for any Cornwell fan. It is a book that will both entertain and delight, terrify and repulse, and provide many answers. Cornwell tells it the way it really was: cold, exhausting, painful, and very bloody.

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