Heretic marks the final part of the grail quest trilogy. Except it doesn’t as Bernard Cornwell has announced his next book will also be the final entry in the series. Still it has been a series that I have enjoyed so far. I found the second entry better than a first. Let’s hope the upward trend continues.
In 1347 the English capture Calais and the war with France is suspended by a truce. But for Thomas of Hookton, the hero of Harlequin and Vagabond, there is no end to the fighting. He is pursuing the grail, the most sacred of Christendom's relics, and is sent to his ancestral homeland, Gascony, to engineer a confrontation with his deadliest enemy, Guy Vexille. Once in the south country Thomas becomes a raider, leading his archers in savage forays that will draw his enemy to his arrows. But then his fortunes change. Thomas becomes the hunted as his campaign is destroyed by the church. With only one companion, a girl condemned to burn as a heretic, Thomas goes to the valley of Astarac where he believes the grail was once hidden and might still be concealed, and there he plays a deadly game of hide and seek with an overwhelming enemy. Then, just as Thomas succeeds in meeting his enemy face to face, fate intervenes as the deadliest plague in the history of mankind erupts into Europe. What had been a landscape of castles, monasteries, vineyards and villages, becomes death's kingdom and the need for the grail, as a sign of God's favour, is more urgent than ever.
With a Bernard Cornwell book you know you are going to get authenticity. It is area of his writing which sometimes let the story down. Not always, but it depends on the mood I am. For example, Heretic opens up with a battle where the French repel the English. It did not feature any of the characters I have enjoyed in the series so far and you get the impression it was included in the book because it really happened. Flick forward to the historical note and sure enough it did. The problem is, I wanted to read about Thomas of Hookton not some random battle and so it was difficult to invest in a struggle that you know your protagonist is not involved in.
Thankfully this is the only time the book suffers from incorporating history into the narrative. There are other times when Cornwell describes how a bow is made, or how a canon is fired that verge on lecturing but these are included into the prose in a more believable way. Again, one day I might find this fascinating the next it really takes me out of the story.
With the negatives out of the way, I can gush at the third entry in the series. Thomas of Hookton is put through the wringer again in this one. Close friends become enemies, old enemies become even more dangerous and nature is the worst of them all.
Thomas pursues the Grail reluctantly. He is torn between believing it even exists and focusing on his real objective attracting the attention of his cousin Guy Vexille. The idea works well as the Grail is mentioned regularly but is not at the forefront of the novel.
Thomas is forced into the unfamiliar position of leading men on his quest. Cornwell handles the struggle well. Thomas stays true to his beliefs but does not always make the right choices, losing friends along the way.
There is the customary love interest, but again this is underplayed somewhat and never feels artificial. The rest of the supporting cast are well described. His loyal men in particular are a pleasure to read especially Sir Guillaume. The villain’s may be artificial but that does not always bother me. If they do something different or memorable then that normally is enough for me. Here.Joscelyn performs two heinous acts that will make me remember him for months.
The end is satisfying without being too impactful. There is the final battle which as always with Cornwell is well describes but there is a sense of petering out.
Out of whole trilogy, this is the book that Cornwell confesses he made up the most. I think it benefits from his imagination. Cornwell would make an excellent fantasy writer, if only he could be persuaded to write one.
My rating 8.5