Saturday, February 13, 2016

Bernard Cornwell

I enjoy historical fiction almost as much as I do mysteries and thrillers. Bernard Cornwell is one of the best authors for a good fast enjoyable read. The books are informative as well since he takes care to respect the actual historical circumstances. I particularly liked the Sharpe series, set before and during the Napoleonic wars, the "Grail Quest Series," about an English soldier in the Hundred Years War, and, now, his "Saxon Series" about the wars between the Saxons and the Danes in the time of King Alfred. Reviewing today Cornwell's most recent historical fiction, Warriors of the Storm, Joseph Bottum evaluates Cornwell's strengths and weaknesses compared to others in the genre. I have no argument with anything  Bottum writes but here use his words to call attention to the positives:
.... As you would expect for one of the bestselling authors in the genre of historical military fiction, Cornwell shows a talent for describing violence: His fights are always exciting, but he never allows the overall course of a battle to be lost in the details of a single soldier’s actions. ....

Cornwell prides himself on the historical accuracy of his books, as well he ought. But it is a thin accuracy, limited to the stories’ fast-paced action. He knows exactly how a Baker rifle would work in the hands of a skirmisher during Wellington’s campaign through Portugal and Spain—even while it’s not certain he knows why, exactly, the British were there in Portugal and Spain. For a certain kind of writer, writing fictional stories drawn from actual military history, it’s enough that the grander events of the story did take place. Their only necessary justification is their factual reality, and the fiction weaves its fictional characters like decorative stiches on the fabric of history as it actually happened.

Whether in his Sharpe series of 19th-century battles or his tales of warfare in the Dark Ages, Cornwell uses his descriptions of the mechanics and tools of war to build his historical settings. And that, I think, is something of a departure from the normal course of such soldier novels. If your sense as a reader is that his technique is more typical of naval stories, you would be right. Cornwell once suggested that—with the 1981 Sharpe’s Eagle—he began his stories of a foot soldier in the Napoleonic Wars because there wasn’t anything equivalent to the popular naval fiction set in that era. Although he loved sailing, he thought that the Duke of Wellington, not Admiral Nelson, was the greatest military figure that Britain threw against Napoleon, and he wanted to do for the British soldier in popular fiction what C.S. Forester had done for the British sailor in his Hornblower novels. ....

...[I]n his Saxon chronicles, Cornwell tells the tale of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a child of a Saxon lord in Northumbria who was captured and brought up [by] Danish raiders. Beginning with The Last Kingdom in 2004 and extending to the latest volume with Warriors of the Storm, Cornwell has been using the series to raise awareness of the historical foundation of England, in those moments when Alfred the Great fought off the Danes and established what Cornwell believes is the first unified people that could be called English.

Even more than Cornwell’s other characters, Uhtred is pulled by multiple forces. His battle sense is pure Viking, but his people are the Saxons. His own son converts to the rising religion of Christianity, which he feels a betrayal of the pagan gods he knows. ....

[Patrick] O’Brian once complained that there was “too much plot, not enough lifestyle” in Cornwell’s historical fiction—but that’s the point. In books such as Warriors of the Storm, Bernard Cornwell lets battle do his work for him, his historical settings conveyed through the characters’ internal conflicts as they stride through a landscape of war.

And if the result isn’t high literature, it’s still very good genre work: readable, fast, informative, and fun. A professional fiction, with all that the word professional conveys. [more]
Cornwell writes books that I ration because once I start I have difficulty stopping. He is particularly good with battles as indicated, and also accurate about the weapons and tactics and human toll. I haven't re-read any of the books but I haven't discarded them either and I still buy them in physical form.