That was my final thought when I put down Bernard Cornwell’s book Harlequin, Book One of the Grail Quest series. For the first time in a very long time, a Cornwell book was an utter struggle for me to get through. It took almost a month to read the whole thing and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was extremely bored about the whole affair. This was a shame as the hundred pages at the end were a little bit too little, too late as it suddenly became almost-classic Cornwell, with the Battle of Crecy being described in great detail, a violent slice of the Hundred Years War.
The book follows the rather one-dimensional Thomas of Hookton, a young man who escaped from the sacking of his home town through a measure of wits and skill with a bow. His final moments in his town sees him swearing that he’ll regain the lance of St.George, an important religious relic that somehow found its way to a little fishing village on the coast of England. All of this was good, the build up was great and then when the book suddenly proclaimed him to join the army as an archer, it was a bit jarring.
Thomas then wanders his way around through bits of France, makes extremely bad decisions because of a lady, blunders his way back to the army , nearly gets killed in Caen through a silly backstory with a knight called Sir Simon, survives due to the ministrations of a handy local doctor and finds out his true ancestry, which he doesn’t like. Apparently his true family may be the keepers of the Holy Grail and thankfully Tom Hanks didn’t make a run through the pages shouting that they needed to go to a library.
Seriously, if the main character can’t be bothered, why should we be? The backstory would have been fine if it was a little bit more fleshed out but the book really starts to lose momentum at this point and gets bogged down with the only handy ford available to be along the lines of saying, ‘And NOW, ladies and gentlemen, the Battle of Crecy!’
There’s no one villain in the piece that really makes that person seem to stand out. Sir Simon, a knight that has it in for Thomas through a series of events, would have worked out a bit better if we could see what a tortured soul he really was, rather than this self-pitying rapist. Duke Charles, a man who was supposed to help out the Countess of Armorica, ends up raping her. The main villain, the Harlequin, is also sort of just there and is background colour to the Battle of Crecy and is probably a rapist too. Basically, all villains are rapists and so are all of the French except for the ones who suddenly turn on themselves, because Thomas.
Thomas of Hookton isn’t that much of a hero in regards to Richard Sharpe or Nathaniel Starbuck, with the latter much more suited to character build up. Poor Thomas here is a cardboard cutout when compared to these two and doesn’t even stack up to Cornwell’s Nicholas Hook, the protaginist in Azincourt. Read Azincourt, not Harlequin, if you want a better story about an archer.
I haven’t read Book Two, but it looks to be better than Book One. Maybe it’ll be the Attack of the Clones to The Phantom Menace, we’ll have to see, if I want to fork out the extra money. I don’t really, because this one was, well, a bit…