on 7 November 2013
The test of a good book is the question "Did I enjoy it?" and, in this case the answer is a definite "Yes". Hence four stars. The rest is just observation from one reader's perspective (mine).
I found this book to be engaging and engrossing; I really wanted to read on to see what happens next. The pace is just right and the battle scenes are among the best I've ever read. The main character is well founded and his growth from callow boy to seasoned warrior progresses beautifully. Although other reviewers have criticised the accuracy of some of the detail (there's no such thing as a 'short bastard sword' or 'chain mail') I found almost all of the minute detail of life in this period spot on and fascinating. This period in history is a particular hobby of mine and I was delighted to see so many of the historical facts not only very accurately relayed here, but also in a manner that draws out the political complexity of the era (the Channel didn't stop anyone from claiming sovereignty in either England or France).
The book may suffer from an unfair comparison. Bernard Cornwell's 'Grail Quest' series, with Thomas Hookton as the main character, tells a very similar story (in fact, VERY similar!) and, of course, that is Bernard Cornwell and so is utterly masterful The similarities are very striking (Thomas Hookton / Thomas Blackstone !!!) and David Gilman, unsurprisingly, doesn't fare well in such comparison. Bernard Cornwell's hero suffers a debilitating injury to his fingers that looks as though he will never again draw a bow, but he recovers almost to his original standard though sheer grit. At the end of Mr Gilman's book, Thomas has suffered a similar injury which, we are told, means that he will 'never draw a war bow again'. Hmm, let's see but, a warning to Mr Gilman, if, in the next book, Thomas recovers through sheer grit to be almost as good as he previously was, I can see a claim of plagiarism heading your way. But if you compare every book that you read to the absolute best in the genre, then just about everything you read will disappoint. In this case, I'm very happy to set any comparison aside and to simply consider Master of War in its own right; it's very good indeed.
OK, there a few, pretty minor, gripes. Thomas Hookton is just that bit too good to be true. I might be able to accept his shining honour and his incomparable skills as an archer, but we see every single arrow shot hit its mark, even in the turmoil of battle; reality was never like that. Thomas's involvement close to the heart of power is a bit contrived, as is the love interest that seems to have been shoehorned in ("Oh yeah, we'd better have a damsel in distress"). And , for me, there was one glaring error that cropped up over and over again that really irritated me, mainly because I am certain that Mr Gilman knows the facts but just didn't want that inconvenience spoiling getting in the way of rhetoric. That is the absolutely known and proven fact that arrows, even when bodkin tipped, almost never pierced plate armour. At the very best, when shot from less than 20m and at poor quality armour, an arrow might, just, pierce the plate armour but it wouldn't carry on through the padding below (the gambeson). It might bruise, but it couldn't kill. In this book, French knights are killed in their droves by arrows passing right through their armoured bodies. At both the battles of Crecy and Azincourt (which Mr Gilman incorrectly expresses as Agincourt, again, I imagine, to salve popularism), it is known that the French died as a result of the ground on which the battle was fought and the English practice of killing the horses. Men were, actually, killed once on the ground by knife or war hammer, not by arrows. That the sheer weight and volume of arrows in the air was a factor is undeniable (like standing, naked, 10m away from 20 people all firing paint balls at you) but it didn't kill many of those in armour.
One other, very minor, irritation lay in the names. Throughout, there are two Blackstone brothers and our main hero is Thomas. Instead of referring to the hero as 'Thomas', the author refers to him as 'Blackstone'. This probably wouldn't have been noticeable but for the frequent references to 'Blackstone's brother' but, of course, they are both 'Blackstones' so such reference could also refer to Thomas himself. We, the reader, have an emotional connection to Thomas Blackstone who is, after all, a sympathetic character, so referring to him as 'Thomas' would have been appropriate and less jarring.
But those things only annoy me because I'm a geek and, overall, this is still a really good novel. I will, certainly, buy the next in this series and you should too.