Monday, March 11, 2013

Thank heavens I was not born in the Middle Ages: A review of Bernard Cornwell's "Agincourt"

Why I read this book:

Ah, historical fiction. The union of the two components in this genre makes so much sense you have to wonder why it was not invented sooner*. This genre is a perfect example of the "opposites attract" principle. By itself, history is informative and probably important, but kind of boring. Fiction is for cat people. Together, however, history and fiction are exciting and educational. It is basically like eating a cake and getting the nutritional value of vegetables. So let's learn about Agincourt, but let's have fun while we are at it!


1. The Black Plague - the worst.
2. The Western Schism - probably should not be second worst, it was not that bad.
3. Serfdom - that must have sucked, but definitely beats the Plague.
4. Dukedom - people have to call you "Your Grace". I could get used to that.
5. Age of Discovery - godsend for the Europeans. Not so much for everyone else.


The book was ok. Just ok. The story line was just too predictable and not particularly captivating. You know that feeling - like when you meet someone for a first date, and you know immediately that the date is going to be perfectly pleasant, but will go nowhere. And so you exchange the usual lines: "Yes, I also really want to go to New Zealand!", "I know, Tina Fey is just so brilliant!", "Oh, so you are tapering now?", but at the end of the night, you are left with an unmemorable evening and a $100 dent in your wallet. Your own fault, of course - who gets dinner on the first date? 
Anyways, the most enjoyable part of the book was the epilogue where the author explained his fascination with the Battle of Agincourt, a major event in the Hundred Years' War, when a vastly outnumbered English Army defeated the French thanks to the prowess of its long-bowmen. Perhaps I have gotten used to reading dry history books or perhaps the originality and dedication of the author shone brightest during this part of the book, but I greatly enjoyed his discussion about his sources and the analysis of how many fighters there were on both sides. I even liked the fact that the author explained that he was trying to convey how brutal the fighting was more than the numerous parts of the story where the author went into gory details describing the "actual" battles. Describing gory battle scenes is one of the few areas of story-telling a movie would do a better job of conveying than a book, and I wish the story line of the book was more engaging instead.

So should you read this book? Sure**. But probably not. You should, since we are on the topic, at least read the Wikipedia entry for Agincourt because you never know when it might come up in conversation. Well, alright, you do know - practically never. But if it does! And what if that attractive person you are talking to loves the Hundred Years' War?! Then that's true love, my friend.  

*I have no idea when the historical fiction genre was created. It was probably invented by Hammurabi. That guy was way ahead of his time. The only things he did not invent are the printing press and the telephone, and that may have been on purpose so that the human race would not get depressed from not inventing anything after he was gone.

**In all seriousness, you will be better served by reading this book than by watching whatever trash is on TV right now, so you can buy the book here. Unless you are watching "House of Cards" on Netflix. Then do not buy this book. Continue watching that show instead.

1 comment:

  1. Mischa. I know many datums about the middle ages. Your reviews are funny (I especially liked the Knowledge Of vs. Value-Added graph in your Omnivore's Dilemma review) but I must disagree with your #3 rating, above. The book may deserve that score, but serfdom most certainly does not trump the plague. Europe had dozens of plagues over those dark hundreds of years, but serfdom prevailed throughout, and serfdom consistently kept millions ignorant and poor before their backbreaking labor (whose fruits they were denied) killed them. At least the germs were swift.