Read it twice: once, fast, for the action, again, slower, for the detail,
This review is from: 1356 (Paperback)
The title '1536' refers to the date of the battle of Poitiers, (against the background of the English victory at Crécy), with The Black Prince of England ravaging southern France for booty in a chevauchée, to bring French King Jean II to battle, and finally did so and won a stunning victory against the odds. Bernard Cornwell puts a lot of effort into reconstructing the scene of the battle action and setting the scene for the battle climax - the book is worth the read for this alone.
This is a good way to bring history alive and in a few hundred pages a lost slice of the Hundred Years war becomes vivid to the mind's eye. (The now better known and earlier Battle of Poitiers was AD732, heavy infantry led by Frankish King Charles Martell stopped the Muslim invasion of the Arabian general Abd ah-Rahman leading a larger army of light cavalry, sending them scuttling back to Spain where they were eventually ousted from Europe in La Reconquista, 1492.)
The story is held together by centering on a single buccaneering leader, Sir Thomas Hookton, one of the famed and feared English longbowmen of the period, leading a small contingent of archers and men-at-arms. Thomas is a fair and pious man, and leads his men well, but there are times when his back-story feels improbably and arbitrarily overloaded with family and historical connections to be true, but then we have to have sequels so I say bear with it.
From the perspective of good writing and literature, Cornwell has not troubled to edit this story tightly enough, so I found it best to speed read it first time to get the gist of the action and the main characters, ignoring all the lumpish sentences and rough cuts. Then read again, slowly, picking up the detail and getting a very good and pleasant history lesson. The dialogue holds up at all times though, so good for a film script!
The only technical criticism I have is that if Cornwell had really done his homework he would have learned how to fire a bow - any lesson with a light modern recurve bow would supply lots of relevant detail missing from here, or studying a book, or even discussion with a modern hobby archer, and the internet is full of videos from enthusiasts who show off their skills here with detailed tips and information. The descriptions of mounted combat with lances and armoured horses are excellent, and very graphic with welters of gore and gristle. Overall four out of five.