Customer Reviews: The Archer's Tale (The Grail Quest, Book 1)
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VINE VOICEon October 15, 2001
With "The Archer's Tale" Bernard Cornwell transports his readers to the mid 13th century and the start of the Hundred Years War. His replacement for Richard Sharpe is Thomas of Hookton, an archer in the army of Edward III.
We learn in the prologue that Thomas is the illegitimate son of the Hookton parish priest, an educated man of mysterious noble origins. Thomas learns Latin and French from his father (which is puzzling because we find out later that the priest's native tongue is langue d'Oc) and archery from his maternal grandfather. French pirate overrun Hookton killing everyone except Thomas. They are led by the priest's nephew who wants an important relic his uncle has hidden in the Hookton church.
Thomas then joins the King's army in order to find and take revenge on the man who massacred his family and his town. Like Sharpe, Thomas soon comes to the attention of a powerful historical figure, the Earl of Northhampton. He also has Sharpe's knack of making deadly enemies of the venal and the villainous -- in this case a knight who serves in the Earl's command. Two women of noble status play key roles in Thomas' life as he fights his way from Brittany to Normandy and into France. The climax of the book is the battle of Crecy.
"The Archer's Tale" is filled with the wealth of historical detail that gave the Sharpe series its air of authenticity. The reader learns the minutae of using the English longbow in battle, about life in a medieval army, and about medieval life in general. Lest I give the wrong impression, the book is stuffed with plenty of exciting, gory, mayhem too. Thomas is an altogether worthy replacement for Sharpe. His intriguing antecedants and his secret quest promise further adventure.
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on September 23, 2006
I received the book from a friend as a 'good read'. At the time, I had little knowledge and less interest in the 100 years' war, but had nothing else to read, so I started it. I found the book to be a well written, engaging, well paced look into the life of a common archer who finds himself in the service of the English during the 100 years' war... Cornwell puts the reader in Thomas of Hookton's hip pocket, and there the reader stays as Thomas survives battles, love, lust, injury, failure and triumph in day to day life of 15th century Europe.

The book is historically very acurate, with a minimal articstic liberties taken, and sparked me to learn more about the period. I found it so enchanting that I read the other two books in the series, and started researching more about the war itself... Highly recommended!
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on June 23, 2003
There is an inevitability that any new Cornwall book will be measured against the Sharpe series and the opener of the Grail Quest series, `Harlequin' proves that it is of the same ilk. The novel follows an English archer, Thomas of Hookton, from the destruction of his home town and the murder of his father, Father Ralph, through to the battle of Crecy in 1346. Cornwall moves from battle to battle during a period, now denoted by modern historians as the commencement of the Hundred Years War, during which King Edward III of England waged war through Normandy against Philip VI of France.
Cornwall opens in England with the deliberate sack of Hookton by the French knight-pirate, Sir Guillame and the enigmatic figure of the Harlequin. Their prize is the legendary lance of St George. After this prologue we are swiftly deposited in France where Thomas has become an archer of some note in the English army under the leadership of Will Skeat. We are at the walls of La Roche-Derrien which the English are desperate to storm and eventually manage to do with the guile of Thomas. It is during this period the main characters are established, Thomas' immediate enemy - Sir Simon Jekyll, Jeanette Chemier, Comtesse d'Amorique (though known initially as the Blackbird), niece of Charles de Blois, Father Hobbe - who seems to spend most of time acting as Thomas' conscience in a manner that more befits the slave whispering in the triumphant imperator's ear - Eleanor and an assortment of other minor characters.
So, we move from battle to battle, Thomas saving Jeanette after Charles de Blois takes her son, he flees attempted murder, makes it to Normandy, loses Jeanette to the Prince of Wales (the Black Prince of later legend), finds Sir Guillame, learns of the true nature of the Harlequin, is tasked with the greater mission of the Grail quest and eventually fights in the Battle of Crecy, which the English win.
A great deal of the novel is given over to the dominance of the archer in this period of history and Cornwall has clearly researched his subject matter as there is technical detail littered throughout. His depictions of the battles are what we would expect of the author of the Sharpe series and he doesn't shy away from depicting the brutal reality of medieval warfare. Our hero is not overly chivalrous - though considerably more so that his counterparts - and we are taken through the aftermath of several battles into the details of sacking cities - particularly Caen.
Some of the characterization is a little stereotyped. Particularly the villains. There is a fairly weak reason given for Sir Simon's initial enmity - seems to be just an instant dislike, which is echoed in the later `Vagabond' with Sir William Douglas - which then rests on a more solid foundation after Thomas steals both his desired woman and then attempts to murder him. The dark cloaked Harlequin (or Guy Vexille, Count of Astarac - who turns out to be Thomas' cousin ) is also somewhat standardized as the thinking villain amongst the remaining bumbling ones. Indeed, most of the battles are won by the English (or people associated with Thomas) due the enemy's lack of foresight, intelligence, or experience.
Nevertheless, this is a good story and you come away with the impression of some accuracy. The pace moves along nicely, there are some complete subplots and the right mix of reality and general adventurousness. All in all a well rounded tale and it'll make the reader reach for both `Vagabond' and the eventual `Heretic'.
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on October 24, 2001
With The Archer's Tale, Bernard Cornwell has started a new series. Set in the fourteenth century on the eve of the Hundred Year's War, this one features Thomas of Hookton the sole survivor of a French raid on a poor, south England fishing village. In the prologue we meet Thomas, see his father--a priest--murdered, watch him kill his first Frenchmen with an arrow from his longbow, wonder why the raid has focused on retrieving an old lance--supposedly St. George's, learn that there is a mystery about his birth abd watch with him as a pretty young maid --probably carrying his child--is taken away by the raiders. All that in the first twenty pages! Cornwell, of course, is a master of historical fiction. And he is at the top of his game here. Using the typical device of placing ordinary men in extraordinary historical settings, Cornwell teaches us much about medieval life, towns and warfare. The book culminates with the great battle at Crecy--a battle which had been at the edges of my understanding for decades. As the story end, Thomas, callow no more, is called on to greater deeds--a quest for the Holy Grail no less! Hurry up publisher, get the next volume out ASAP. 'Tis great fun!
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on May 26, 2003
Harlequin is Bernard Cornwell's first book in The Grail Quest Series and we are introduced to Thomas of Hookton for the first time. This book is more well known as "The Archers Tale", but here in New Zealand it has been released under the name Harlequin. The story is set around the time of the 100 Years War with the main protagonist's being France and England. Thomas, the son of a priest starts his adventure after leaving England to join the army of King Edward III and do battle in France. Not only is he there to fight for honour and money, but to recover a sacred relic, a lance stolen from Thomas's village of Hookton, when the French sacked it and killed his father. Thomas's father is not originally from Hookton and his family heritage is a secret that Thomas is intent on uncovering. Thomas is an accomplished archer and despite all the gallantry of the Knights, and masses of men-at-arms, it is the English King's common archers that spread fear throughout the French troops, and ultimately determine the outcome of battles. Cornwell's works of military history, of which his most famous are the adventures of Richard Sharpe, are hugely detailed and infinitely researched. Although the characters in Harlequin are fictional, many of the battles portrayed actually occurred which adds to the interest of the story. Cornwell has that magical writer's quality where he can thrust the reader into the era he is writing about. It's akin to entering a time portal every time you pick up the novel. Once you are there he puts you in the heart of the battlefield and it's difficult to return to the 21st century without being sickened by the reality of warfare in this dark age. He pulls no punches with Harlequin and the horrors of battle and the treatment of civilians are vividly rendered. As with all Cornwell novels and as indicated by the title of the series `The Grail Quest' there is an underlying story evolving with the main character that runs parallel to the fortunes of the army he fights for. Thomas of Hookton exhibits many of the characteristics of Richard Sharpe. He is physically strong and tall, he likes his woman and he is an efficient and ruthless adversary in battle. Above all, Thomas is a flawed character. I look forward to book two in the series, `Vagabond' to see how Cornwell develops Thomas's personal traits. This is an era where battles are brutal affairs fought with vicious weapons. In contrast to this, the traditions of the knights, Lords and other nobles in the story provide an interesting insight into human behaviour. One moment a soldier can be merciless and cold-blooded and the next moment, a gallant gentleman. Cornwell explores this human trait nicely and it adds to the flavour of the story. I enjoyed this book. I don't rate it up there with the best of the Richard Sharpe books, as I have an affinity with the Napoleonic Wars and with Sharpe himself. If you think the French and English hated one another during this era, wait until the Scots make an appearance in the second book in the series, and be appalled at how they treated one another. Recommended for those with an interest in an action packed historical novel. Highly recommended to those with an interest in military history novels.
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on March 1, 2003
You know when you start a Bernard Cornwell book you can strike certain items off a laundry list: undervalued superhero, check; bloody violence, check; loyal friends, some disposable, some not, check; fantasy chick, check; pitiless villain, check; final battle where the hero triumphs, check; an opening to the next chapter in the series, check. Cornwell never disappoints, nor does he ever really surprise. He is a guilty pleasure of several hours of, i don't want to say mindless reading, predictability.
Here Richard Sharpe circa early 1800's, oops, I mean Thomas of Hookton circa 1340's, overcomes deprivation and violence to battle to an all-too-certain victory. Instead of being a sharpshooting rifleman in Wellington's army, Thomas is a sharpshooting archer fighting in the Hundred Years War. And I hope I don't sound like I'm above it all. I'm not. I love it. I love the violence and sex and can't wait to read the next one...already out: 'Vagabond'. I believe every arrow unswervingly shot.
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VINE VOICEon October 14, 2006
I first encountered Bernard Cornwell's work via the BBC TV series on his Napoleonic Wars soldier, Richard Sharpe. This was a gripping series, very well produced as one might expect from the BBC, and full of action and strong characters. So I picked up The Archer's Tale and was immediately plunged into his other world, the late Middle Ages of the Hundred Year's War, with a climax at the famous Battle of Crecy.

As with the Sharpe series, he evokes that world in a wonderfully detailed and immediate way that is immediately convincing, and tells his tale with a plot that draws you in. The tangled relationships of English and French are well drawn - many descendants of the Norman French conquerors of England have become the English invaders of France, even though some of them were probably closer in spirit to their French cousins than to their Saxon or "English" tenants.

I wasn't totally sure about the accuracy of his medieval world-picture, in spite of the evident deep research. Reading Huizinga and other social historians, one is struck by the importance of myth and symbolism in the worldview of the people of that age: credulity and superstition were at a high level. I began to feel that Cornwell's people are perhaps almost too contemporary in their down-to-earth practicality and, one almost says, cynicism. But then again, I recall Chaucer and his open, frank assessments of everything, his cheerful wit and ready sarcasm for the pretentious. Maybe Cornwell has it right.

Some describe him as the land-based successor to Patrick O'Brian. Well, yes and no. Insofar as both wrote wonderfully complete re-imaginings of a previous world centered on a miltary theme, yes. But I noticed in the Sharpe series that the characters, although strongly drawn, are not as rich, varied,or complex as the cast of the Aubrey-Maturin series. O'Brian just has more dimensions. And linguistically, O'Brian goes deeper into 1800s idiom. (Though that may be an attribute of the TV series - I haven't read the Sharpe books themselves). In The Archer's Tale, of course, the linguistic challenge is of a different order. The dialogue was all "really" in Chaucerian Middle English or Norman French - or Celtic Breton - and that won't make a highly readable book in the 21st century! So I think he does a very creditable job in having his characters speak a serviceable, straightforward English, free of labored archaisms but salted here and there with words that ring true as a likely phrase from the time - " Sir Simon attacked you?" Jeanette asked."Why?" "Because I told him to boil his arse" Thomas said, and was rewarded with a smile."

Another difference is that Cornwell is indisputably gorier (is that a word?) He does acknowledge, in a "Historical Note" that he first approached the period thinking of "chivalry, courtesy, and knightly gallantry" but rapidly found out about the brutal reality of medieval warfare. But even so, he does seem to give us much more blood-soaked detail than O'Brian in his battle scenes. Of course, in O'Brian's naval setting, hand-to-hand combat played a lesser role - some ship boardings, some land fights. Still, Cornwell does lay it on perhaps 'praeter necessitatem', as the slightly later William of Occam would have said.

Final verdict? I am going to follow up and read a lot more Cornwell....
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on September 28, 2002
The Archer's Tale is definitely worth your time if you are a fan of historical fiction, especially medieval historical fiction. Knights in armor, kings, castles, cavalry, swords, shields, arrows, fighting, killing, rape, pillage, plunder, and an engrossing story to match the fast, exciting action. The best part is that it follows history correctly more than most novels.
At first I thought that a story about an archer would be boring because I had the uneducated view that archers fought from the rear of the cavalry like cowards, I couldn't have been more wrong. English archers are killing machines, they stand on the front lines and they kill with the enemy riding down on them. So, don't let the fact that an Archer tells the tale instead of some knight in shining armor turn you away, you'll enjoy the story from the archer Thomas just the same if not more.
Therefore, you have a respectable character to follow as a great story is told of a relic that must be taken back from evil and returned to the side of God. The story starts simple enough but evolves into Biblical proportions, literally. Great story, great action, great historical fiction! Also highly recommended is Pressfield's Gates of Fire, if you like one you'll like the other!
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on October 29, 2001
Bernard Cornwell is best known for his Sharpe's Rifles series, covering Wellington's Peninsula Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars; and expanding to a prequel series about the creation of the British Raj in India. He has also looked into the American Civil War (The Starbuck Chronicles), the American Revolution (Redcoat), Arthurian legend (The Warlord Series), and the dawn of British history (Stonehenge). All are well written, although the American books fall far short of the British ones. Cornwell's latest is British again, and is up to his standards.
Thomas of Hookton is the illegitimate, but acknowledged son of the very unusual village priest in the seaside hamlet of Hookton. Everyone assumes that the priest is of noble birth, and at least a little crazy. He even has books! Which he reads! He intends Thomas for the clergy as well, and Thomas already has one year at Oxford. Thomas's real love, however, is archery. He is a master of that strange, new, and uniquely British weapon, the longbow. French pirates, commanded by a mysterious character who gives his name as "Harlequin, attack Hookton on Easter morning, kill the priest, steal the precious holy relic displayed at the church, and start Thomas off on his adventure.
When the pirates attack, Thomas goes for his longbow, and mounts the only defense of the village; but it is too little, too late. Thomas finds his father dying and learns that "Harlequin" is actually his cousin and that the holy relic in the church is a mystic family heirloom which his father stole from his family when he fell out with them. But his father does not tell him his family name before he dies.
With nothing left in Hookton, Thomas goes to the wars, enlisting as a common bowman. He becomes a soldier in the British army which has invaded France as the Hundred Years War begins. What follows is Cornwell's masterful narration of historical fact set in the thoughts and deeds of his characters. It appears from the ending that this is the first in a new series of Cornwell histories. This reader will certainly look forward to the books that follow.
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VINE VOICEon January 15, 2008
If you've read the very fine, "The Last Kingdom Series" and "The Arthurian Series", you'll most likely be disappointed in "The Archer's Tale". In "The Archer's Tale", Thomas, the main character, doesn't come close to the strength of Uthred or Dervel, and doesn't have enough depth to carry the story. The development of the character Will Skeat gave the reader more of a feeling for the man, while Thomas seemed to float through his life, and I found myself bored by the story. Also some of the battle scenes, especially the last one towards the end of the book, should have been better edited. Too long and far too wordy at best, but that's not to say I won't read the final two books in the series.

It's hard not to taken away with Bernard Cornwell's writing, but for me "The Archer's Tale" was weak in comparison to his other series mentioned above.
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