Heretic - Bernard Cromwell

Book Three of The Grail Quest
Bernard Cromwell
Harper Collins
ISBN: 0575073543 (Amazon link)

When I read Vagabond, the middle book of this trilogy, I compared it to a ham sandwich. Okay, so it wasn't great, but it was an entertaining enough read, and I like a straightforward historical action adventure now and again. I wasn't in any hurry to read Heretic, but my reading pile dipped low, I wanted something unchallenging as work was keeping me busy, and I saw the hardback edition cheap... Just as well I got it cheap and wasn't expecting much because I still didn't like it.

Heretic is book three of a trilogy, The Grail Quest. I don't imagine anyone will still be reading this unless they've read at least one of the preceding books, so I'll skip the detailed plot summary. It's pretty much the same setup anyway - Thomas alternates seducing yet-another-beautiful-girl and killing people. Robbie acts as the friend who'll alternate being, well, Thomas' friend, and the person who'll inject some excitement into the plot by turning on Thomas. Some churchmen act venal and corrupt, scheming for the Grail, and send their agent, Guy Vexille, after his cousin Thomas to recover it. This would all be more exciting if Cromwell hadn't already told us where the Grail was, and if we suspected for a moment that he'd write anything other than the traditional ending. The details might change from book to book, but come on, you know some loveable sidekicks will die bloodily while Thomas watches, there'll be a big fight, Evil Twin^H^H^HCousin Guy will get his comeuppance, the bad guys won't get the Grail, and then Thomas and woman-of-the-week will ride off into the sunset.

Cromwell writes entertaining enough action scenes, and delivers sympathetic characters, and so the plot doesn't seem quite so static and formulaic while reading, but really, the author never delivers on the promise of his setting and characters. This is just TV screenplay fiction featuring 'one damn thing after another'. Not recommended, go and read Gallows Thief instead, one of Cromwell's better novels. I'm going to have a little rant which requires spoiling the ending, so if you're planning on reading Heretic anyway, look away now.









I've got three complaints really; the first is that all the excitement of the titular Grail Quest is drained from this volume because Thomas had his hands on the Grail at the end of Vagabond! At no point does the Maltese Falcon, sorry, McGuffin, sorry, The Grail seem to be in danger of being recovered by anyone else, so there's no tension arising from the central plot device.

My second complaint is the use of the Black Death as convenient plot device. Really pathetic. It needed to happen much earlier in the story, and directly effect some of the main characters for it to be justified. Instead, it feels like Cromwell wrote himself into a corner and reached for the pestilence as a deus ex machina.

My last complaint is that Thomas ends the story with the Grail in his hands. Now, if you're going to write a novel, especially one where you're sticking to this timeline's history, where someone ends up with not just a purported Grail, but The Grail, then you'd better do something decent with the plot. I've read other books where the Grail as mere insubstantial Idea, or as a fusion of Celtic myth with Christian belief, has kept me glued to the page. Although Cromwell not only allows himself the luxury of a literal Grail, but allows it to be found too, he does nothing interesting with his story. Thomas is devout enough to have been horrified by excommunication, and even if he wasn't devout, getting his hands on such a potent relic should have sealed any doubts. And yet it never crosses his mind to use the Grail for good, or to be seduced by its potential. We have here a devout Catholic, clutching the Grail, with pestilence all around and he doesn't even entertain notions of using it to heal? Good thing this was the closing scene, as it means I wasn't tempted to 'see what happened next' after dropping this book on the floor in dismay.

Posted: Sat - May 8, 2004 at 09:25 PM