As much as I like the Sharpe books, the Warlord Chronicles is far more to my taste when it comes to Bernard Cornwell. I was hoping that the Holy Grail series would be closer to the Arthur books then and I would find a new favourite series of his.
After reading Harlequin I can say I am both satisfied and slightly disappointed. If ever there was a book that was a love child between two series, Harlequin falls into the category.
It combines some of the best elements of the Arthur series but is also spoilt by some of the weaker elements of the Sharpe series. Well, when I say weaker elements, I refer to the things I find annoying but know full well, others love about Cornwell’s writing.
You see, the great thing about the Warlord Chronicles is the legend of King Arthur has so little/vague evidence of the time period. This meant that Bernard was not constrained in his writing in order to ensure historical accuracy. He was free to write each scene and battle as he imagined it. He was able to introduce the hint of magic into the story whilst still ensuring credibility. He was able to flip the personalities of the characters. In short, he could write what he wanted and the result of this was a masterpiece.
With the Harlequin and indeed the Sharpe books, although they are great reads, they are also historically accurate. Most of the time, Bernard manages to expertly weave this into the story effortlessly. However, at times like in the Harlequin, in order to impart to the audience exactly what really went on in the battles etc, he sometimes lapses into a few pages of description regarding the movement of major figures in history who have not featured prominently in the story. I find this results in me being thrown out of the great story telling slightly. Only slightly mind!
The Harlequin then focuses on Thomas of Hookton. An archer who’s town is destroyed whilst he was supposed to be defending it. Thomas is a good character to root for, but also frustrating at the same time. He is very Sharpe like in that he loves battle and has a sense of honour and loyalty to his fellow soldiers. However, this commitment to the army gets in the way of him fulfilling the numerous personal vows of vengeance he makes. Sometimes you just want him to get on with his personal quest.
The supporting cast as you would expect from a Cornwell novel is strong. Will Skeet in particular is likeable as the hard nosed but fair leader of the archers, as is Father Hobb who acts as Thomas’ conscience. There are some characters that drift in and out of the narrative with no resolution but this is to be expected in the first book of a trilogy. There is also the customary villain of the story who continues to haunt Thomas.
The trilogy is about the quest for the Holy Grail. It is mentioned in this first novel and I particularly like how the characters deal with it. For instance, in a world so grounded in the harshness of war, Thomas does not debunk the Grail’s existence but chooses to bury his head in the sand over the whole mythos surrounding the artefact. The fact that the character openly recognises that he does not have the mental capacity of will to comprehend such a thing of power is a nice touch and helps to improve the Grail’s credibility.
Overall then, Harlequin is a good Cornwell book. Which means it is better than about 80% of the books out there. My rating: 8.4