Harlequin (Grail Quest #1) by Bernard Cornwell
From New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, now available in paperback—the first book in the Grail Series–a spellbinding tale of a young man, a fearless archer, who sets out wanting to avenge his family’s honor and winds up on a quest for the Holy Grail.
At dawn on Easter morning 1343, a marauding band of French raiders arrives by boat to ambush the coastal English village of Hookton. To brave young Thomas, the only survivor, the horror of the attack is epitomized in the casual savagery of a particular black-clad knight, whose flag — three yellow hawks on a blue field — presides over the bloody affair. As the killers sail away, Thomas vows to avenge the murder of his townspeople and to recapture a holy treasure that the black knight stole from the church.
To do this, Thomas of Hookton must first make his way to France; So in 1343 he joins the army of King Edward III as it is about to invade the continent — the beginning of the Hundred Years War. A preternaturally gifted bowman, Thomas quickly becomes recognized as one of England’s most deadly archers in King Edward’s march across France. Yet he never stops scanning the horizon for his true enemy’s flag.
When Thomas saves a young Frenchwoman from a bloodthirsty crowd, her father — French nobleman Sir Guillaume d’Evecque — rewards his bravery by joining him in the hunt for the mysterious dark knight and the stolen holy relic. What begins as a search for vengeance will soon prove the beginning of an even higher purpose: the quest for the Holy Grail itself.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
This is a superb book and I read it through in less than 2 days. It’s a completely original setting for me as I haven’t read anything from this time period. The quality is of the writing is among the very best I’ve read.
In all three things made this book for me. The first, as always, are the characters. There are a small number of main characters and a host of supporting minor characters but the author manages to make all of them stand out and be memorable. He gives just enough information to make them relatable without bogging the reader down with unnecessary detail. Thomas, despite the description above, is no knight on a quest and simply wants to fight and plunder while keeping himself and his friends alive. He’s the reluctant hero.
The second is the battle scenes. The setting is the start of the Hundred Years War with a mixture of seige fighting, knight cavalry charges and hand to hand fighting. This is definitely no romantic Arthurian chivalrous combat. It’s bloody, violent and very visceral. It’s about staying alive by killing as many of the enemy as possible and then taking what you can from the survivors. The author manages to find just the right balance between detail and not losing the reader in the complexity of the writing. I’ve seen him do that with some of the Last Kingdom battles but not here.
The third element for me is how he tells the story. We are dropped into the middle of the war and into Thomas’s life with no background or back story to work from. We gradually get to know him and his quest as the book progresses and keeping the mystery keeps the interest. He also blends the stories of Thomas, Sir Simon, Guillaume and Harlequin together in a very skilled way.