Titling a novel with the year in which it is set presumes that the reader is aware of the historical event _ 476, the fall of the Roman Empire; 1215, Magna Carta; 1588, the defeat of the Spanish Armada; 1775, the American Revolution; 1789, the French Revolution; 1814, Waterloo; 1939, Hitler's invasion of Poland; 1941, Pearl Harbour. But 1356... with how many people does it ring a bell ?
1356 by Bernard Cornwell, 385 pp, 2012 HarperCollins paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 650 baht.
Brit Bernard Cornwell, whose historical novels are critically and popularly acclaimed, makes a convincing case for regarding it famously. Like Crecy previously and Agincourt afterwards, the Battle of Poitiers was a decisive English victory over the French during the 100 Years' War.
We tend to forget that England and France were enemies for a millennium. It may be said that while England won the majority of their battles, in the long run it was France that won the war. Though invariably outnumbered, King Edward III won the day at Crecy, The Black Prince at Poitier, Henry V at Agincourt.
It is little realised that the Welsh longbow, the decisive weapon in three battles, had been used against the Saracens in the Holy Land during the Crusades. Cornwell allows that Crecy and Agincourt have gotten their due, yet why not Poitiers? He describes the battle in the latter part of the book in detail.
At the outset, the French had the English surrounded. King Jean II made The Black Prince (son of Edward III, the Prince of Wales) an armistice offer he couldn't, but did, refuse. The author throws in a holy relic, the sword of St Peter, ensuring a French victory. Alas, its magical powers didn't work.
The protagonist is English archer Thomas of Hookten whose martial arts are second only to The Black Prince. With every weapon of the time, Thomas kills villains, in single combat and against impossible odds. With few exceptions, the French don't come off well here. The cowardly retreat of the Duke of Orleans hands the victory over to the English.
Churchmen, cardinals to monks, are given soft shrift for their impiety. FYI: The Black Prince wasn't called that in his lifetime. His name is a mystery. His armour wasn't black and his disposition wasn't dark. If you like historical fiction, more historical than diction, Bernard Cornwell is your man. He is also the author of the Sharp series, set during the Napoleonic Wars. Cornwell is a patriot, but showing the French in a better light wouldn't hurt any.
Vulture Peak by John Burdett, 345 pp, 2012 Corsair paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 350 baht.
From the Stone Age to the present, there's been the certainty that nothing lasts forever. Things wear out, dealt with by repairing the faulty parts or replacing them or, as a last resort, discarding them entirely, and making or getting something altogether new.
For centuries, this applied to humans as well. Peg legs took the place of lost limbs, hooks of lost hands, not to mention false teeth in the latter part of the 20th century _ all sorts of body parts were replaced. With them, people lived longer. An extended, healthier life is the universal wish. The problem is that the demand far outstripped the supply of voluntarily donated body parts to hospitals.
Legitimate waiting lists became so long that all too many of those on them passed away still waiting. Money _ a substantial, not to say considerable amount _ is a sure way to jump the queue. Illicit and unfair, yet how much is human life worth? The authorities are endeavouring to put an end to this trafficking in human body parts.
It is the theme of Vulture Peak by British author in Thailand, John Burdett. Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai is his literary creation. Half farang, his mother is a publican, his local girlfriend a former prostitute now going to university for her PhD in sociology. His manipulative chief is Colonel Vikorn.
When bodies turn up with parts missing, it is ascertained that they were eviscerated. Sonchai is given the case and the brief to investigate wherever it takes him, which is Dubai, Monte Carlo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
In China, he learns that criminals condemned to death are a prime source of the body parts.
Though he picks up clues in his adventures along the way, along with CIA agents, the key to the racket proves to be in his homeland. A general is the big boss and the colonel is taking the credit for solving it, with which he intends to propel himself to Bangkok's governorship.
The subplot focuses on the vibrant night entertainment scene, more so in Pattaya than Bangkok. Its popularity is such that he feels it should be legalised and the women on the game taxed to balance the budget. He also praises katoeys.
The author suggests that readers reconsider their preconceived notions about the world's oldest profession. Most of the sex workers really aren't forced or tricked into it. Nor are they all victims or poverty.
To his credit, he avoids the temptation of throwing Arab terrorists into the story.
As for the human organs racket, don't count on it going away any time soon.
About the author
- Writer: Bernard Trink
Position: Freelance Writer