“ Author: Bernard Cornwell / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 28 May 2009 / Genre: Historical Fiction / Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers / Title: Heretic / ISBN 13: 9780007310326 / ISBN 10: 0007310326 / Alternative EAN: 9780007149896 „
I have become thoroughly engrossed in Bernard Cornwell's Grail Trilogy, and have enjoyed the first two books. With this third providing drawing events to a close, the style of writing, deep characterisation and flowing details continue, and I was looking forward to enjoying all of the plot and subplot developments coming to a satisfying close.
However, much like the eternally divided public's opinion on the last ever episode of Lost, I found myself questioning the things that weren't tied up, or indeed ever rementioned. And I'm not talking about small and meaningless plotlines, but those which had strong elements in the first two books and left things wide open, never to be touched on again by Cornwell.
We left things again in the balance with archer Thomas of Hookton roaming the countryside, still in the employ of the Earl of Northampton. The book starts off well enough, with Cornwell showing off his knowledge of historical battle strategy by depicting a fight across the river Ham in Northern France, as the French try to regain hold of an English stronghold near Calais. Set in the 13th Century, we see the conditions and restrictions, limitations that just wouldn't exist as much these days, and how the battles develop.
From this, the Earl sends Thomas to the South of France to continue his search for the Holy Grail, this being the main point of the trilogy. His aim is to capture the small stronghold of Castillon d'Abruzzon, which used to be the Earl's control, and very close to Astarac, Thomas' Vexille family hold. From here, we see various new characters emerge, as well as the continuance of previous characters. Thomas' unlikely allies are a French Knight, Sir Guillaume, and a disgraced Scottish noble, Robbie Douglas, and these are the mainstays of Thomas' adventures in this book.
On the other side, we have the Church painted as extremist religious fanatics, with Thomas' cousin, Guy Vexille, the villain of the piece, accompanied by a local land lord and his entourage. The vicious and devious nature of Guy is backed by the argument that he is striving to rid the World of those against the Church and provide God's ideal World. His obsession with the Grail has become more dangerous, and Thomas must stop him by finding the Grail first.
However, the battle between the two men is deeper than this. The trilogy opens with Guy killing Thomas' father, and subsequently, Sir Guillaume and Robbie both end up having vengeful reasons for wanting the man dead. This provides enough justification for the hatred and venom between the two parties, and everything else just follows on.
Love once more plays a part, as the third amour in Thomas' trilogy appears in the form of French heretic Genevieve. This has adverse affects for Thomas and the loyalties of those around him, and results in Cornwell placing him in an even more desperate position, with the likelihood of him succeeding dealt severe blows. I suppose this is designed to make it seem even more of a dramatic effort for the hero to become the eventual victor, but instead, it felt a bit false and unrealistic. I wasn't convinced by some of the justifications for people's behaviour and loyalties switching, etc, and it became farcical and reduced the enjoyment factor.
By the end of the book, I felt it had dragged a little more. The saga could have been wrapped up 100 or so pages earlier without it having a negative impact on the tale or a feel of rushing things. Subplots start and aren't finished, while promises made in previous books and other plotlines left open just aren't closed off by the end. I was really disappointed by this and felt rather cheated, having read three long and descriptive books that you just can't rush, only to be thwarted from complete closure by a rather messy and abrupt end. Perhaps at some point Cornwell intends to finish things off or continue some of the plotlines. Who knows? Perhaps he was showing how things just sometimes peter out. However, the effect is one of disappointment and annoyance.
The book is written very well, and Cornwell's style is very engrossing. His eye for detail is immense, and while the first two books had a majority of real battles taken from history, the majority of battle in this third installment are fictional. The fact that you can't tell the difference means this is clever writing - Cornwell certainly knows his stuff. I'm impressed. I shall continue to read his books, as I like the way he writes. I can't say I'd be able to read book after book after book, as it can be an effort and drag in places, but I'd happily work my way slowly through his collection, every now and then.
I do recommend reading the Grail trilogy, but just be warned of the loose ends. It completes the main saga well enough, but the subplots that are often more interesting than the Grail element are somewhat unfinished. A good read, but one that left me with an overall feeling of disappointment. At around 440 pages or so, it's not too long. Worth a read, but be warned.
'Heretic', the third and final book in Bernard Cornwell's Grail Quest series, opens with a skirmish as the French army attempts cross the river Ham in another attempt to reclaim the English-occupied city of Calais. English archer Thomas of Hookton comes to the aid of his lord, the Earl of Northampton, assisting his escape when the Earl and his men become trapped on a marshy outcrop by the river in the face of overwhelming French odds. This is all depicted in a lively and exciting way, and kicks the off the book nicely, the pages thick with imagery of the splashing of hooves through water, the clashing of steel on steel and the thudding of crossbow bolts through armour and flesh.
The grateful Northampton sends Thomas and his companions to Gascony to search for the grail, with orders to capture the castle of Castillion D'Arbizon in Berat, which Northampton feels he has a legitimate claim over. Thomas, and his unlikely companions, namely Sir Guillaime, a displaced French Lord, and Robbie, a Scottish prince down on his luck, capture the castle in a stealthy night time mission accompanied by a small band of archers and men at arms. Dissent soon spreads throughout the new garrison however when Thomas falls in love with Genevieve, a heretic girl whom he finds chained up in the castle dungeons and refuses to give up to be publically burned. Robbie becomes infatuated with her as well, and finds his values and loyalties to his friend Thomas tested when Thomas shelters the girl from the Church's wrath. Thomas quickly finds himself excommunicated by the Church, and is forced to abandon his command, fleeing across the countryside with his persecuted lover.
Meanwhile, Thomas' enemies are closing in on him in their efforts to recover the grail for their own ends. His shadowy cousin, Guy Vexille, is seeking Thomas to torture out of him whatever knowledge he has. Vexille is in league with the corrupt Cardinal Bessieres, who, assisted by his murderous brother Charles, seeks to seize the papal throne by having a goldsmith fashion a fake grail and staging its discovery against the backdrop of the quest. Bessieres wants Thomas out of the picture, for fear that he might find the real grail and expose him as a fraud.
Elsewhere Jocelyn, the fearsome yet thick-skulled heir to the throne of Berat, seeks to retake Castillion D'Arbizon and make those who stole it pay for the insult with their lives. His uncle, The Count of Berat, who seeks the grail so God will grant him a son, finds a sealed chamber behind a solid wall in the catacombs beneath the ruined castle of Astarac, which was once home to the Heretic Cathars and rumoured keepers of the grail before they were scourged from the earth centuries earlier. Is it possible that he has found the real grail?
Thomas seeks refuge in a Cistercian monastery before being forced to flee, falling in with a ragged group of coredors (bandits) in his desperate attempt to surivive. Cornwell is successful in creating a sense of urgency and peril, and a feeling that the fibres of the wider story are slowly drawing together to a finale. Whilst there are no large-scale battles as in the previous books, these replaced instead by a series of small skirmishes and deadly fights, there is enough going on to keep the reader interested throughout. The book concludes with a truly savage white-knuckle struggle for the grail amidst the dead and dying in the castle of a town gripped by a sudden plague epidemic.
Whilst solidly entertaining, 'Heretic' draws to a somewhat messy close, leaving a number of questions unanswered. We never learn what became of Jeanette, the French Countess with whom Tomas was in love in the previous two books and whose captured son Thomas had sworn to rescue. Likewise, several newly-introduced characters simply disappear towards the end, their fates remaining frustratingly untold. The plot also feels rather contrived in places- The Earl of Northampton's sending of Thomas to Castillion D'Arbizon feels somewhat arbitrary and unconvincing, for example. The final conclusion to the quest itself is something of a letdown too. I won't give it away here, but suffice to say I had already identified exactly what the outcome would be from a couple of small, throwaway sentences carelessly placed into one of the earlier books.
'Heretic', unlike its predecessors, is largely based on fiction; everything other than the opening French attack and the introduction of the plague in the closing chapters is made up. I don't personally have a problem with this, as the book is still hugely believable and interesting, but given that Cornwell chooses here to incorporate such poetic licence into his story, he could have opted for a conclusion that was a little less safe and predictable.
Overall though, 'Heretic' remains an exhilarating read, and brings the series to a satisfactory if not particularly imaginative close.
So, finally, after a mammoth 900+ pages, we come to the end of Bernard Cornwell's Grail trilogy. Has it been worth the journey or a huge waste of time? Well, like most journeys, it was fun setting off (the first book), dragged a little when you realised how far you still had left to go (the second book) and you can feel yourself starting to get more excited as you near your journey's end. It's just a shame that (to really overstretch the travel metaphor) Heretic gets stuck in a few traffic jams along the way.
The book benefits hugely from the fact that this time it concentrates on just a handful of characters that we've been with throughout the journey. This creates a natural interest point, as you want to find out what fate has in store for them. Gone are the grand battles, the large historical concepts and the huge, sometimes confusing set-pieces. Instead, the book becomes more personal. We concentrate on the people who have set out on the quest, learn more about them and consequently, get to care about them a little more.
This is particularly true of the lead character, Thomas of Hookton. We've spent a lot of time in Thomas' company, yet by the end of the second book, knew little more about him than at the start of the first. Here, we start to get a little more behind what makes him tick, which makes it easier to sympathise with him. His ally Guillaume D'Evacque is similarly fleshed out and feels more like a real person than he did in the other two books where his chief role was to act in whatever way the plot demanded. Sadly, other characters don't fare quite so well and are still relegated to "one dimensional" status, being either wholly good or wholly bad.
To a large extent, this doesn't matter, as Cornwell still manages to tell a mostly interesting story. After two books, you finally feel that the Grail - for so long ignored - is actually starting to matter. There's a real sense of urgency, as various parties all start to hunt in earnest for the item for their own reasons. The plot itself may not be hugely original, but it is very entertaining; mixing just the right blend of action, character development, misfortune and fights to keep the reader interested. Certainly, after the relative disappointment of Vagabond, this marked a return to form and the book gripped me in such a way that I wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible to find out the fate of each of the characters.
Cornwell also seems to have hit his stride as an author with this one. There is a more natural flow and rhythm to his story-telling and events generally progress at a good pace, sucking you in to the story. Just occasionally, you get the impression that things are being artificially drawn out for the sake of a longer book (we get characters going to one place in search of a clue... only for that clue to lead them back to where they've come from... only for another clue to take them back where they've just been). However, this time around, you can usually forgive this, because you know the adventure does end with this book, so you will finally get some answers.
Cornwell has also continued writing in the improved style he adopted for Vagabond. So, whilst chapters are still long, they are broken up into smaller sections, making it easier to just pick up the book and have a quick read.
I mentioned at the start that Heretic concentrates more on a handful of characters and ignores the wider political and historical scene. Whilst this certainly helps with the pacing of the book, it perhaps also disadvantages it. It doesn't feel as real as the previous two. The first books were set against genuine, well-researched historical backdrops, and Cornwell made sure his characters were placed in the context of their times, giving a greater air of believability to proceedings. Here, with the exception of the opening and closing events, Cromwell has made everything else up. This decreases the sense of reality and makes it feel more like you are reading a book, where the people and places have been made up by the author for the convenience of the plot. It's not a major problem, but after the historical accuracy and detail of the first two books, there's a noticeable difference in the tone and feel of the final one.
After so much reading, I was looking forward to some startling conclusion to the adventure, which, sadly, was missing. It's almost as if Cornwell himself wasn't sure how to end the book. Whichever way he went (whether the Grail was discovered or not), he would risk offending someone. So, he opts for a relatively safe ending, which gives him a get out clause from all criticisms that might come from various religious or anti-religious groups. The trouble with safe endings is that they are almost invariably anti-climactic. And so it proves here.
Overall, though, I've enjoyed the Grail Quest trilogy. For the most part, they are a nice, easy read, pretty well written and packed with interesting historical information and exciting plotlines. The quest has felt a little dragged out at times, and the ending is a little tame, but it's been an interesting ride and one I'd recommend to most people.
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