In this book, this oh so wonderful book, Christian Cameron proves yet again no matter what era he writes in, he does it with style, skill and panache. For me he is the finest writer of historical fiction currently writing. As a writer he ticks every box, deep research, deep personal knowledge from his re-enactment, a deep abiding passion for the subject matter and for the world of writing, and a natural skill of the storyteller, a skald, a minstrel a chronicler a man who can lift his audience to another time and place, transporting them to sit at the shoulder of his characters through pain, happiness , passion, victory and defeat. Every single book gets better and is a bigger triumph than the last, and that astounds me, because every book just takes my breath away in its scope and skill.
Ill Made Knight is a whole new world for me, I know nothing about this period, 1356 England and France is a blank slate, and yet in every page I felt at home with William Gold, I felt every one of his losses and every one of his victories, his betrayals hurt me as much as William, his losses cut me to the core, his loves reminded me of the highs a person can reach just being in the presence of that special person in your life and his anger at the Bourc burned as hotly for me as it did for him. The book arouses all those passions in the reader and more.
As much as I was entertained, I feel I was also educated, knowing that the author, has invested so much time, patience, blood sweat and energy into understanding the period, the arms and armour, the clothing, the fighting (he took part in a tournament recently in full armour). All of this brings the story to life, it brings a reality a realism, add to that the authors military background and understanding of soldiers and war and you really do get a sense that you are experiencing a true accounting rather than fiction.
This will absolutely be one of the best books you read this year.
Other books by this author
1. Tyrant (2008)
2. Storm of Arrows (2009)
3. Funeral Games (2010)
4. King of the Bosporus (2011)
5. Destroyer of Cities (2013)
6. Force of Kings (2014)
1. Killer of Men (2010)
2. Marathon: Freedom or Death (2011)
3. Poseidon's Spear (2012)
4. The Great King (2013)
Tom Swan and the Head of St George
1. Castillon (2012)
2. Venice (2012)
3. Constantinople (2012)
4. Rome (2013)
5. Rhodes (2013)
6. Chios (2013)
Washington and Caesar (2001)
God of War (2012)
Alexander: God of War (2013)
The Ill-Made Knight (2013)
The Long Sword (2014)
I have borrowed this title ("Noble ideals and bloody realities") for my review from a collection of studies that addresses various aspects of this tension throughout the middle Ages. I could also have titled it "the business of war and knightly honour," or something like that, because this is also what this superb piece of historical fiction is about.
The point I will try to make is that this book is not only a very entertaining novel that tells the adventures and rise in the world through war of William Gold, who starts his career as a cook's boy in the army of the Black Prince, fights at Poitiers and ultimately becomes a famous mercenary captain. It is about his aspirations and ideals; his quest for honour and knighthood, but also for recognition and enrichment through war and it is also about all these aspirations conflict with each other and reflect the tensions of his times.
The story begins at a time when the Great Plague had swept across Europe and as the war in France had been going on for some fifteen years. It ends about a decade later with the main character serving in Italy as a mercenary and one of the up-and-coming lieutenants of Sir John Hawkwood, one of the most successful of the mercenary captains of the "Great Companies." There will clearly (and very much hope so) be other volumes telling the rest of the story, given the way that this volume ends.
The book brings together the three main ingredients that you find in all good pieces of historical fiction: an original plot and a cast of rather interesting characters grounded in a historical context that has been meticulously researched.
To start with the plot, I was initially a bit concerned when ordering this book because I feared that the author might seek to emulate Bernard Cornwell's 1356. Instead, he has come up with a mostly original story. He does also describe the crushing and unexpected English victory at Poitiers, but in a significantly different way. He shows, in particular, to what extent the outnumbered and cornered English army managed to "snatch victory from the jaws of defeat". It was a hard fought battle in which British longbows played an important role, although the author does not believe that it was the single decisive factor that tipped the scales in favour of the Prince of Wales and his army. Some may disagree, but the point is nevertheless made very convincingly and the battle is well reconstructed.
William Gold is then associated with the main events that followed the capture of the French King at Poitiers and the disastrous (for the French) Treary of Brétigny which ceded vast territories in France to the King of England and put thousands of professional soldiers out of a job. This includes the breakdown of French royal authority, the civil war across Normandy and Ile-de-France that pitted the Dauphin against the King of Navarre and the revolt of the Commune de Paris and of the peasants (the Jacquerie). Then, as one of the professional soldiers of the Great Companies for whom war was both a way of living and of getting rich, he takes part in several campaigns across Burgundy and Provence, including the little-known battle of Brignais of which I will say nothing here, to avoid spoilers. At a later stage, and as alluded to previously, he serves as a mercenary in Italy at a time when the small but very rich Italian states were all hiring bands of mercenaries from all across Europe through contracts which were quasi-business ventures (the "condottas", hence the term codottiere) to fight their wars.
The second ingredient is the cast of historical characters. Most of them are historical. For those, the author has generally made a significant effort to stick to what is known of their careers and personalities. This is for instance true for the French captains, whether Bertrand du Guesclin or Jean le Meingre (the first Maréchal de Boucicaut), and, of course, Geoffroy de Charny, that paragon of knightly valour who was killed at Poitiers (although perhaps not quite as described in the book) and did die defending the King and the Oriflamme of Saint Denis. It is also true for the English warlords, whether the Earl of Oxford, Sir John Chandos or the glimpses we get of the "Black Prince" (who was not so black, neither literally nor figuratively, as the author explains in his historical note).
Then there are the mercenary captains, almost all of which are historical character including Camus who, according to the historical sources, really was a particularly "nasty piece of work," apparently worse than the others who were no angels. In modern terms, many would probably be branded as war criminals and monsters and, at the time, all of them were seen as particularly unsavoury characters and more or less beyond the pale, until Kings (both the English and the French ones) decided to use them as "deniable assets", to use some modern terminology. This is also something that Christian Cameron shows rather well in the book with regards to John Hawkwood, who, while officially acting on his own and in his own interest was also at the same time serving those of his King.
The author seems to have taken a few (rather minor) liberties with a couple of the historical characters that appear in the book, in particular with Arnaud de Cervoles, the "Archpriest", depicted as incompetent. He was not, although he had the rather nasty habit of changing sides in the middle of battles and betrayed just about everyone, and managed to obtain royal pardon. Another interpretation, but this one grounded in history and in the mentality of the times, was to depict the Dauphin Charles as a physical coward. He did acquire such a reputation after leaving the field of Poitiers before the end of the battle, contrary to his father who make a final stand although the fight was already lost and was captured while he could have fled. Accordingly, Jean II "le Bon" (which meant the Brave) was seen as another paragon of chivalry at the time, although posterity has been much harsher and he tends to be branded, perhaps a bit unfairly, as one of the worst Kings of France.
I will pass on the historical context, if only because I have touched on it already several times, and focus on William Gold, chivalry and its noble ideals and ambiguity. This is perhaps the aspect that I liked the most with this book. It is also what makes it stand out and part from most other historical novels, including my favourite ones. The author, through the character of "self-made man" William Gold, has in my opinion managed to give his readers a flavour of the state of mind, values and aspirations of 14th century combatants might have been. In particular, he has shown very well how noble knightly and courtly ideals clashed with the realities and horrors of war. He also shows how the hero's actions tended to vacillate and was torn between adherence to the code and practicalities (the need to get rich through loot and the need to survive through plunder), while some of the other characters were more inclined to one or to the other extreme. He also shows to what extent the code of honour that was the basis of chivalry could be extended to the "business of war", as illustrated in the industry of ransoming noble captives. Finally, he depicts rather graphically its limits as chivalric ideals, while still adhered to by some, crumbled under the double pressure of the Plague and of war. He also shows that this code, in practice, was applied by and to the nobility. Peasant, commoners and more generally those that could not pay were not worth keeping alive.
Finally, there were a number of nice stylistic touches that I particularly liked and which worked well, even if they are not original. One was to have the hero telling his own story. The other was to drag into the story the main written sources of the period, including Chaucer, who plays a rather significant role in the book and appears as a cynic not believing in chivalric ideals, and Froissard, from which most of the materials for the first part of the Hundred Years War come from.
As a result, and with all this going for it, this book is easily worth five stars. I would have given it more if this had been possible. I also largely agree with some of the other reviewers. This is certainly one of Christian Cameron's best books to date, even if I am not quite sure whether this is "the best" of all.
There are many books available retracing the events of the Hundreds Years War for those who want to learn more about the period. For specific aspects of it, three can be recommended:
- those wanting to know more about the Great Companies may want to read Kenneth Fowler's "Medieval Mercenaries. Volume 1: The Great Companies (unfortunately, and to my knowledge at least, there has never been a second volume). This is a superb piece of scholarship on all of the mercenary captains and it is well-worth the effort (even if a bit difficult to read at times)
- there are also several books on John Hawkwood - at least three - although the best one in my view is probably that of William Caferro which focuses on his career in Italy (although there is more to it than that)
- then there are also many books and studies on the ideology and components of chivalry and what it meant to be a knight and a "preux". There are even more of them in French. One of the best I have come across so far is Maurice Keen's Chivalry (1984, Yale University Press).
on 11 January 2016
I found my way to this book and the author Christian, through The Red Knight & The Fell Sword. Fantastic fantasy books if you are into that genre and want to sink your teeth into something of quality.
Having found out the author is the same person I looked through his other works, I see ancient Greek based pieces and whilst that is cool it doesn't grab my interest. Then my eyes see the medieval period and I make the purchase, who doesn't love knights.
A truly fantastic book filled with the kinds of detail you just don't see often, travel, upkeep of gear, employment and earnings, banking systems, health care, warfare and techniques. It has it all. Of course the book is historical fiction so you can overlook things at times, but by doing so you are not taken out of the story, and the journey. Having finished this book I immediately purchased the second in the series.
on 23 August 2013
Cameron writes a gripping tale and it is really interesting to see the story form an other angle than that of the omnipresent Longbowman. Most if not all retellings of the 100 years war feature an archer as the main protagonist. Here, at last, all those others get a voice. Not only that, but in the usual telling there is a sense of proto-socialism with the gritty, lower class archer winning the day not only against the French but the vindictiveness of his social "superiors". To cap it all the French are usually portrayed as failling through their inveterate arrogance and snobbery (to use a modern term). Maybe it is because Cameron is American that he doesn't fell constrained by that narrative as British writter so obviously are. He presents the story from the point of view of (ultimately) a knight. This is refreshing to say the least.
He rightly brings to light the dues of the other "arms" in these battles. The longbow was not the only weapon winning battles for the English. However, IMHO, he goes just a tad too far in denigrating its usefulness. It is relegated to the status of little more than a crowd control tool of little lethality. Milanese armour, refered to copiously, would probably have defeated the penetrative powers of the longbow no doubt. But a few things need to be set aside that caveat. How much "Milanese" armour was available in 1356? How many of the French knights would've had it? Not as many as would've made a huge difference - most probably. The simple fact that for over 100 years the English military entrusted huge amounts of resources and the outcome of their campaigns (and their lives) to a battle order consisting of 50-70% of this weapon argues against its inefficacy. On the other side of the coin the French we are told are "man for man better knights/men at arms", I paraphrase, yet they are stil the old blindly arrogant aristocratic fools. So they are better foot soldiers, they want nothing better to do than fight hand-to-hand with their English peers and don't have much, or anything, to worry about form the archers. But hang on, they outnumber the English men-at-arms by a factor 6+ to 1 and yet still lose? So what happened? Some kind of French herd inadequacy apparently. Singly they are great, in numbers they become useless. The story is great, the telling of how it happened is ropey. A real shame.