My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Bernard Cornwell

Hello everyone,

My e-book has moved from ‘In Review’ to ‘Publishing,’ so I expect my next post will be the announcement that it is available for purchase. In the meantime, I thought I’d continue with the second entry in a new 11-part series I described in my last post.

#2 – Bernard Cornwell

I could not in good conscious put this list together without mentioning Bernard Cornwell close to the top. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry, that man inspires me. He’s prolific, he’s got his history to fiction ratio perfectly adjusted, and he’s having the time of his life doing exactly what he wants to do.

He writes smart, adventurous historical fiction in both stand-alone novels and long-running series, and he does so at a staggering rate: He has put out at least a book a year every year from 1981 up to the present; more often than not he’s written a couple, and in 1995, 2002 and 2003 he published three books inside of twelve months! Can you imagine if every author had this kind of work ethic? I can’t speak with great authority about Danielle Steel, but I suspect Cornwell has to be within an order of magnitude of her prodigious output, and that’s really saying something. It’s easy to get hooked on Bernard Cornwell, and it’s even easier to get your fix. Even if you can shoot through one of his novels in a single long day in an arm chair, his current book total stands at fifty-one. He also does a nice job of jumping between his several series and single passion projects. No matter what you’re reading of his, though, you can sense the author’s enthusiasm, intelligence, and general good humour. There are an awful lot of authors whose work I admire, but who I doubt very much I’d like as a person. I’d love to buy Bernard Cornwell whatever he’s drinking. It’s a standing invitation. One of my earliest tweets was regret that the man isn’t on Twitter yet.

I am the unusual Cornwell fan who didn’t discover him through the Sharpe series. My first Cornwell book was Stonehenge, and I doubt very much that we will see a better single work of historical fiction deal with that topic within our lifetime. At its core, it’s a family piece, and the stones rose and fell based on the power struggle between three brothers and the women they loved. What a perfect way to humanize something as ancient and incomprehensible as Stonehenge. I picked it up at Heathrow airport in the spring of 1999. I have rarely had as pleasant a read, despite the cramped airplane seat.

I really can’t review his complete works. I’ve read them all, but other people have done a better job of it already. I can highlight some particular favourites, of course. The Warlord Chronicles is a trilogy about the possible historical truth behind the King Arthur myth, and it is toe-curlingly good. There’s another author who trod the same ground a few years later –I’ll mention no names– but despite a superior beginning that writer grew lazy with his plotting and timid with his characters towards the end (Lancelot was no villain, Arthur never let anyone down, Genevieve betrayed no one… It was dull). Cornwell did in three books what this other fellow failed to do in seven or eight, and he made it look easy. For Cornwel, one suspects it is. He’s admitted in interviews that his plots work from a formula, and that formula is gold-plated bestseller stuff. I wish I could write shorter fiction. Indeed, my third manuscript is my attempt to pay tribute to the amazing way Cornwell keeps his plots moving towards a satisfying conclusion.

Another amazing read by Cornwell is his Saxon Stories, five books so far set in the time of the Danish invasion of England. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is, I believe, Cornwell’s most impressive protagonist to date. He feels like a very natural evolution of Derfel Cadarn, the narrator of the Warlord Chronicles. Uhtred is torn between his love of the Danes and his oath to fight them on behalf of lords he does not love and who love him not. He is full of pride, and the whipsawing of his loyalties in the quest to one day take back his home from an usurping uncle is a joy to read. The series is also clearly Cornwell’s current passion, and there seems to be no end in sight for the story. I look forward to the the next book, and the next, and the next.

He has had rare misses. Sharpe’s Devil struck me as self-indulgent, and the Fort drifted so far from his tried and true formula that I was left curious who I was supposed to cheer for. That said, when Bernard Cornwell puts out a new book, I buy it within a week of it hitting shelves. I love his stuff to pieces, and I’m glad that he’s still young and healthy: I hope he lives to a hundred and twenty, and continues to write a book or two a year during all that time.

– – –

Click here to continue to Part 3 – Gary Jennings.

One thought on “My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: Bernard Cornwell

  1. Pingback: My Favourite Authors of Historical Fiction: James Clavell « Face in the Blue

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