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Gripping tale of Crécy and its aftermath
on 14 August 2013
Writer for classic television detective series Touch of Frost, David Gilman has switched his talents to The Hundred Years War and presents the story of English longbowman Thomas Blackstone during the Battle of Crécy in 1346 and its bloody and dangerous aftermath. Thomas Blackstone is a young mason (about 16 years old) and little more than a peasant, although better educated and better favoured than most thanks to a French mother and a brave archer for a father who had saved his lord's life in battle. When Thomas's deaf and mute younger brother Richard is accused of murdering a local girl, there is no option but for both brothers to enlist in the troop of their lord's knight in order to avoid a death by hanging. The fact that both are highly skilled with the longbow makes them invaluable in these early years of The Hundred Years War. Edward III is about to sail to Normandy to reclaim his lands from the French King. His ships are filled with archers.
The novel is divided into three parts and the battle of Crécy takes place in the first. This gives you an idea that while the book seizes your attention with such a major event early on there is also much more to it than that. The mix of nationalities and allegiances works well - there is almost more tension between the English and Welsh than there is between Norman and English or Norman and French. No love, though, is lost between English and French - too much harm has been done by both. The theme of chivalry runs through the pages. A man such as Thomas might deny its place in a `modern' battle but its codes colour the actions of many of the characters in the novel. When they're broken or when promises are found to be false, there is outrage. This is felt not least by Thomas. Also effectively evoked is the landscape of Normandy and France with its cities, castles, villages and abbeys. Its scenes of war are truly brutal and terrifying and mesmerising.
While I did enjoy Master of War very much, this was lessened slightly by its treatment of women. This is very much a novel about war and it makes no pretences otherwise but women are featured and in comparison with the men have very little colour. Thomas's relationship with Christiana is not very believable to me and felt tagged on. Women throughout are treated with very little respect and while this may well be a reflection of the times it did get a little tiring.
Master of War is an extremely exciting novel. Its pace rarely pauses. But above all else it is steeped in the blood, rage and grief of war, where death can come from every side at any time and in the most horrible of ways, where life off the battlefield can be almost as fragile as on it and where love and friendship have a price. Life was short for archers, knights and the poor. No wonder then that Thomas changes before our eyes to a man that even his friends fear as a harbinger of death. I hope we get a sequel. I'm grateful for my review copy.