The most notable English victory of the Hundred Years’ War turns on the possession of the sword Jesus bade Peter sheathe in the garden of Gethsemane.
At least that’s how it looks in Cornwell’s fictionalization of the events leading up to the Battle of Poitiers, beginning at the moment that a Black Friar breaks into a 150-year-old coffin and steals off with la Malice, the sword he finds inside. Scant hours behind Fra Ferdinand is an enforcer of the Avignon pope calling himself Father Calade and armed with a hooded hawk who serves as his own enforcer. The large-scale opposition between the English and French forces as they skirmish over ransom for hostages and salaries for mercenaries is complicated by the number of key characters who change sides. Sir Thomas Hookton, who begins by serving the Count of Labrouillade, soon breaks with him over (what else?) the money due him for restoring the faithless countess to his hearth and home. Brother Michael, a Cistercian who’s come to Montpellier to study medicine, takes up with Thomas. So does Sir Robert Douglas, who’s already fought against the English under his Scottish uncle. Few of these characters have any inkling that a pivotal battle in the endless war for France looms ahead. Neither, for that matter, will unwary readers. For, although every intrigue springs to life under the close-up focus veteran Cornwell (Death of Kings, 2012, etc.) has long since mastered, the strands aren’t always closely knitted together: Heroes and subplots blossom and fade with no consistent sense of their connections, and readers approaching the tale without the appropriate historical background will have to survive a long probationary period before they realize where this is all heading.
Best for fans of historical fiction who have both a taste for the Hundred Years’ War and some base-line knowledge that will allow them to enjoy this swashbuckling recreation.