on 9 October 2006
The Archer's Tale (otherwise known as Harlequin) is a good start to a good series. In my opinion Cornwell always writes well, and creates enjoyable 'rough around the edges' heroes. However, the Grail Quest series completely pales in comparison to the Arthurian Warlord Chronicles. If you've read them, read Harlequin (but don't expect to be overwhelmed). If you haven't read the Warlord Chronicles, read them first - they're truly exceptional, in my view surpassing Sharpe, Starbuck, and all the rest of Cornwell's output. I would also recommend Cornwell's current series, with The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman and the Lords of the North. They are (so far) almost as good as the Warlord Chronicles, and I wait with bated breath for the next instalment...
on 17 October 2001
Nice sympathetic hero who attracts the female reader by realising that there is another side to rape and pillage. Descriptions are vivid and you can already imagine the TV series with disparate range of characters. Holy Grail? By 14th century surely no-one really thought it still existed? I'm not sure that "Harlequin" is any better than Daniel Hall's "Road to Crécy". One blunder that the publisher let slip. The River Seine does not flow through Rennes. I'm willing to proof read the sequel.
on 20 September 2007
"Harlequin" (also known by its US title, "The Archer's Tale") is the first book in Cornwell's Grail Quest trilogy and follows the experiences of young longbowman Thomas of Hookton during the early years of what will become known as the Hundred Years' War. When Thomas's father is killed and his village destroyed by French raiders, he vows revenge upon those responsible and makes it his goal to recover the holy relic - the lance of St George - that they stole from Hookton's church. Years later, as he finds himself fighting for King and country in Brittany, he starts to discover the nature of his enemy, the Harlequin, and of his own destiny in defending Christendom.
This is an entertaining and fast-paced tale, in the course of which Thomas joins battle countless times, makes both enemies and friends, is outlawed and then reconciled, finds love, has it taken away, and finds it again, while a host of supporting characters enter and disappear from the narrative. Unfortunately this fast pace means that there is little overall sense of direction to the book, and since the quest for the Grail forms only a subplot in this first volume it means unfortunately that the narrative lacks much depth. Thomas, too, is not as compelling a character as Cornwell's other heroes, Derfel (of the Warlord Chronicles), and Uhtred (of the Saxon Stories). He remains a rather bland and disinterested figure and shows little development over the course of the book, and it is difficult for the reader to feel an emotional connection with him.
On the other hand Cornwell is very good at fleshing out his story with a cast of interesting supporting characters. Two in particular stand out, namely Thomas's employer, the gruff William Skeat, and his sworn enemy, the bitter and penniless knight Sir Simon Jekyll, while many other refreshingly quirky minor characters lend personality and life to the setting. Cornwell expertly creates a real sense of time and place, and his depictions of the medieval towns of of La Roche-Derrien and Rennes, and of the French countryside, are colourful and vivid. He does well, too, to communicate the drive and often the desperation felt within the English army, as well as the utter destruction inflicted upon the French. His battle scenes are likewise engaging and his treatment of the Battle of Crécy, the climax of the book, is excellent.
Everything considered, "Harlequin" is a great yarn, not by any means Cornwell's best work but very readable nonetheless. I would be interested to see how he develops Thomas's character and his quest in the sequels, "Vagabond" and "Heretic".
In Harlequin, Bernard Cornwell gives us a fast-paced medieval adventure culminating in the terrifying Battle of Crecy. Although it doesn't paint the period picture as well as his "Sharpe" books, it is an enjoyable read full of the usual Cornwell touches - graphic battle scenes; a driven, and sometimes cruel, hero; beautiful (dark haired) women; treacherous cold-hearted villains; and indulgent lords. It's not his greatest work by far, but I certainly enjoyed it enough to want to read the other two books in the series. If you like Cornwell's brand of adventure with an emphasis on battle realism, you'll like this.
on 30 November 2011
The story seemed to lose its way somewhat in parts, I though. Characterisation interactions were inconsistent at times and explanations long winded. Will still continue the Trilogy to see if the character interactions deepen. Not as immediately readable as Conn Iggulden or Ben Kane, in my opinion.
on 28 April 2012
I was given this book to read as a third choice so being an avid reader and also a fan of Cornwell's Azincourt, I began reading hoping for something equally as good.
It is the start of a story of a life of an archer from rural England who, like so many in such books, unwittingly enters into the world of battle due to tragic circumstances. The dying father who leaves a clue as to what to do next; the search for revenge; the enemies he makes along the way; the women he loves and loses, and so on. A relic of uncertain origins that is stolen is mentioned throughout and although is the basis for the story its true significance is in some doubt. Fortunately for me at least, this element of insignificance regarding the relic within the story works in my favour and therefore the story is not centred entirely on seeking this alleged relic but all the peripheries that occur because of it.
The archer of Hookton is obviously the hero so little can be given away when I say that he amazingly manages to escape death surprisingly well all things considered, even a hanging encounter. However, battle scenes where men choose to fight but animals do not do tend to trouble me and I found myself skimming over the graphic and utterly gruesome descriptions of horses being wounded and killed in battle. This seemed to be far too regular an occurrence and although we all need to be reminded of wars fought and lost, there was simply too much of it for me and I admit I found it upsetting so will not be too keen to read the remainder of the series.
The mention of Cathars and the French v English hatred is all fascinating and tempts one to find out more bearing in mind the extent of Cornwell's factual research so that is certainly a plus point; it has given me an intrigue to read more about the heretics and internal hatred of France as it was then.
on 5 March 2001
Bernard Cornwell has never tried to hide the viscously commercial industry in which he works (Sharpe was born because he "spotted a gap in the market") and it is unsurprising that he continues to work in one field - not that I'm complaining. I make the point purely because I was of the belief when the book was launched that it would be the successor to the Sharpe series. After all, Sharpe has now left India and returned to England, so I thought that there could be no more prequels left for him to write. I am intrigued therefore to see this book described as the first in a trilogy in other reviews here and, as I am now aware of the impending new Sharpe novel, am extremely curious to see just how Sharpe ended up in Scandinavia! This is a part of Sharpe's story we knew nothing about before.
I digress, however. I have no choice but to admit that I found the first two thirds of the novel fairly non-distinguished. Indeed, at one point I put the book down for a week before taking it up again, something I have never before done with a Cornwell book. Nevertheless, it would be unfair of me not to mention that now I have finished the book, the characters (protagonists and peripherals) remain in my conscious, which must be a sort of hallmark. Of course, everyone has differing interest and tastes and I have no doubt that this book will transpire to be as much of a success as his other recent books. Particularly now that he has such a strong following from the ITV Sharpe dramatizations. Cornwells' sense of drama and his literary skill remain in the higher echelon of writers, and his industrious attitude is second to none - how many other major writers produce two new novels every year? For me though, the story was not what it could have been in terms of either originality or its ability to capture my imagination. Perhaps his creative streak is being damaged by his prolificacy? Only he can answer that.
on 9 November 2000
After reading the Warlord Chronicles, which were excellent,I was quite disappointed with Harlequin, and I found it boring in some places. The plot was quite predictable, but that's probably because I have read so many Sharpe books I kept finding simlarities. The first part of the book was the most interesting, but i struggled to finish it. People who have not read as many of Cornwell's books as I would find it more interesting.
on 15 June 2005
I feel obliged to express my opinion on this book but as a disclaimer I must make it clear that this is very much my opinion and my dwindling concentration could be attributed to anything but the story itself - I have yet to work it out. Firstly though it is important to state that my brief introduction to BC is through his Winter King and Enemy of God books which I found to be excellently researched and written and gripped me with emotions never experienced before while reading a book so this story (Harlequin) had a lot to live up to.
Like the two other books this story revolved around a young man, and like a young man he very often found himself making some wrong decisions and having to pay for it. He also found himself in love more than once and like Dervel in the other two books seemed to spend the entire story looking for respect. Thomas of Hookton was an interesting character to follow because of his free spirit. Though as an archer he was more suited to the army, which he seemed happy to be a part of, yet as most of us young men experience he also seemed destined to carry out his father's wishes. His family quest and the battles with the French drove the story along and in fact it was only when I got to the end did I realise that most of the story was based on fact so I actually feel bad to express that I started to lose concentration when the battles began. I was far happier following his other plights - his loves, his revenge and some of the sticky situations he wriggled his way out of. The ending seemed rather flat and yes, I do appreciate that the story continues in another book but after struggling through pages and pages and pages of that final battle where I got lost within the first few minutes I expected something more. I think BC could have perhaps steered away from fact and dressed it up a little more and though his expertise is in the detail of those great battles I found that the ability to concentrate on enemy positioning and varying characters became a chore so finishing it last night was a relief.
I will however continue to read as many of BC's books as I can because he is a genius.
on 14 July 2015
Bernard Cornwell has written a lot of different books in a lot of different eras yet he seems strangely out of his depth in this adventure of the Hundred Years War. I'm not sure if he just wasn't as comfortable with the era as he was with his other novels, or was just being lazy, but this is not a patch on the Sharpe novels.
The main character Thomas Hookton is extremely unremarkable. There is little or no characterisation which would make him stand out, and the support cast has nothing remotely memorable about them, making it difficult to keep track of who is who. The plot rambles on with little sense of direction with a macguffin involving a sacred lance but its not very original or interesting and you shift from scene to scene without any real sense of place. As with many of Cornwell's other novels the book uses one famous battle as its high point, in this case Crecy, but the descriptions of the battle when it finally arrives are not very vivid or original. It also doesn't come across as very authentic, like Bernard Cornwell had read one book about the subject and gone from there.
What is really surprising is the poor editing that seems to riddle the novel. Descriptions are repeated and perspective shifts from one character to another in some really awkward passages that interrupt the flow of the narrative and make it hard to follow. I have never found this sort of problem with any of the Sharpe novels and it gave me the impression that Bernard Cornwell had simply rattled this book off without really putting any thought or effort into it.
None of Bernard Cornwell's books are literary master pieces but he usually manages to tell a really good story and I am a big fan of his work. This book however was a big disappointment, an attempt to diversify that didn't really work. His other books are much better and hopefully this is just a glitch by an otherwise excellent writer.