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Bernard Cornwell's '1356' review: Middle Ages weren't pretty

"1356" by Bernard Cornwell (Harper, January 2013) Photo Credit: Handout

"1356," by Bernard Cornwell. Harper, 432 pp., $28.99

All in all, the Middle Ages in Europe was lousy living for most people.

How can you tell? Just pick up "1356" by prolific author Bernard Cornwell, and you'll see. But be warned: you'll need a strong stomach for it.

The pragmatic hero, Thomas of Hookton, is ordered to find the fictional lost sword of St. Peter, "la Malice," which is reputed to bring victory to the armies that wield it. Of course, others also are hunting the weapon.

The quests culminate at the battle of Poitiers, where the badly outnumbered English forces, under Edward the Black Prince, face off with the army of a confident King John II of France. The slaughter was overwhelming.

The English won.

Cornwall is one of the best writers of historical fiction. He does extensive research for his various series. This is the latest in his Grail Quest series (after "The Archer's Tale," "Vagabond" and "Heretic"). His other series have dealt with the Napoleonic wars ("Sharpe"), Saxon England, the American Revolution and King Arthur.

Here, he takes you through the turbulence of Europe's Hundred Years War rivalry between England and France, with its armies, mercenaries and destruction. It's more than army against army -- this was ground warfare at its ugliest, a scorched-earth policy across France, plundering and destroying villages and mills.

It's also a time heavily dominated by the Catholic Church and two Popes -- one in France's Avignon, the other in Rome. Papal intrigue plays a part in the search for la Malice.

"1356," though, is about humanity swept up in constant wars, and it is graphically violent at times. It starts with two rapes at the sack of Carcassonne in France, all within the first five pages. Next, a man's eyes are pecked out by a hawk, then he is smothered to death. Things go downhill for many from then on.

Thomas, also known as "le Batard," leads a mercenary group of about 100 men, "all of them adventurers who sought money and found it with le Batard." It's through his actions that the sword ends up on a battlefield where chivalry and reality collide. The fate of la Malice is left for him to decide.

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