Review: The Death of Robin Hood – Angus Donald

the-death-of-robin-hood-angus-donald5 of 5 stars

Series:
The Outlaw Chronicles 8

My version:
Hardback
Historical Fiction Robin Hood
Sphere
2016
Bought, signed

England rebels

War rages across the land. In the wake of Magna Carta, King John’s treachery is revealed and the barons rise against him once more. Fighting with them is the Earl of Locksley – the former outlaw Robin Hood – and his right-hand man Sir Alan Dale.

France invades

When the French enter the fray, with the cruel White Count leading the charge, Robin and Alan must decide where their loyalties lie: with those who would destroy the king and seize his realm or with the beloved land of their birth.

A hero lives forever

Fate is inexorable and death waits for us all. Or does it? Can Robin Hood pull off his greatest ever trick and cheat the Grim Reaper one last time just as England needs him most?

Well, if you can get to the other end of this book and still see to read the historical note, without blinking away the moisture that suddenly seems to be in your eyes, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

That feeling when what you’re reading transcends a genre to speak directly to your heart, some how managing to sum up exactly what you feel. I’ll never read anything better than those last few pages.

It’s perfection. It’s the only way it could have been. It’s fictional, yet it’s so, so real. I don’t want to read another book. I don’t want to be brought down to earth. I want to be where Alan is, with Robin and Little John, and Goody and Tilda and all of them. Forever.

I’ve been put through the wringer. Emotions welling up and unashamedly bursting out. Isn’t it strange what black ink squiggles on a white page can do to you? How just one of the infinite ways of arranging the words can strike you so perfectly. How one line can sum up all that has gone before in eight volumes and be so perfectly, fittingly final. How much you the reader bring to a work. How much an author unknowing of you and your life or current circumstances, can see in to your head and heart and write it for you to read.

I’m not ashamed to say I had to stare out the window, lost in the real and imaginary world and shed a tear for all those friends, real and fictional, now departed.

I thought that this review would pretty much be a review of the series as a whole, without too much specific about The Death of Robin Hood. I thought Angus had perhaps peaked with The King’s Assassin and the final, ‘old Alan’ passages of King’s Man (I think it was). Boy, am I wrong. Nothing can have prepared me for the absolute flawless final chapter of the series. Yes, I knew it was actually going to contain the death of Robin Hood (!) in one form or other and I had wondered how Angus would do it. I had a kind of scenario working away as I read. However, I’m a useless sod. I had no inkling it would be this way. This right.

It’s a lot of responsibility this book has, to round off a series as ambitious as The Outlaw Chronicles. It does it, it pulls it off and then some. I suddenly got more of an idea of how much Robin had really meant to Alan. And of course, how much losing him meant. And how much Alan meant to Robin. By saying “I will never leave you,” Robin neatly reverses what Alan has always promised his lord. Robin, behind the scenes, always, sometimes unknowingly, valued Alan much more than we ever realised and always had Alan’s back. Alan needed someone, some thing, to believe in all the way through. Of course, given the period, there was God, but he also always had his lord, Robin Hood. Robin also always believed in Alan. The two became one. And so, if Angus has done nothing else with his superb series, he has surely, for future generations – when they think Robin Hood, they also think Alan Dale.

A deeply moving book, and above all, a perfect end to the series. Heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, uplifting, hopeful, perfection. Could not be better.

You can buy The Death of Robin Hood at Booksplea.se

Related reviews on Speesh Reads:

OutlawKing's Man 2The King's Assassin

Review: The Iron Castle – Angus Donald

The Iron CastleThe Iron Castle by Angus Donald

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Angus Donald’s ‘Outlaw Chronicles’ books have all been great reads. Well-written, exciting, action-packed and exactly what I want from my Historical Fiction.

There is a problem, however. They’re NOT about Robin Hood. Not even half about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is in the books, but in the background. We don’t follow him, we follow Alan. It’s Alan’s thought’s we are party too, not Robin’s. And Robin would probably have been the more interesting character, even going by the walk-on parts he has had. It is Robin’s thoughts and (perhaps) inner turmoils that I think would have been more interesting. Not just to me, but to your ordinary book-buying reader. If you’re going to sell it as a re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend, you really should feature Robin Hood a bit more. He has got a life away from Alan, of that there is little doubt, it’s just that we learn precious little about it. Obviously that is because it enables Angus’ Robin to move, unseen behind the scenes and pop up just when he is (or isn’t, dependant on what sort of scrape Alan has got himself in to) wanted. So, I ask some people what they think of when they think of Robin Hood. As I live in Denmark, those people are Danes. Even less knowledge of Robin Hood of legend, or with an outsider’s, objective view, you take your pick. Robin Hood? “Something about a forest in England and taking from the rich, giving to the poor” (I’m translating here) was the general consensus here at work the other day. One of the nurses who had lived over in England, could remember him having lived in Nottingham. “France?” “Eh?”

Angus promised much with the first book Outlaw and Nelson DeMille was right with his quote on the cover of the paperback version I have here: “Angus Donald has made everyone’s favourite outlaw a lot more interesting…” He was, in Outlaw. He isn’t, in the majority of the books after that. He can’t be, he isn’t in them enough. What Angus created in Outlaw I thought, was a really different, reconstructed, Green Man Robin. Caustic, earthy, as in of the earth, harsh though fair (of course) and interesting. He is a hero for people who needed one. A direct descendant of the King Arthur tales, a pre-Saxon hero, a summation of hopes, and pagan folk legends made flesh. Now, six books in, he’s swearing his allegiance to the King – by his faith in God, for goodness’ sake. It was a great start. But I would venture that many a reader has rushed through Outlaw, then bought book two Holy Warrior and thought “Hang on, this is supposed to be about Robin Hood! And he isn’t in it!” Well, he is, but more in name, than deed. And Alan and Robin aren’t in Sherwood either, not even in England much after Outlaw. Maybe Angus worked on the ‘you can take the boy out of Sherwood, but you can’t take Sherwood out of the boy’ principle. On that level, it would have worked a treat, kind of. If it had have been the two (or three or four, as it was at that point) outlaws taking their Sherwood nous to fight in the Holy Land – that would have been an interesting project to have explored. But by the time they embark, they are no longer outlaws, no longer forest-dwellers, but are gentry, Knights, with lands, castles, retainers and are on first name terms with Kings. And French in all but name. And remember, Robin Hood was a hero to the Saxons, fighting the Norman French. In Angus’ version, after Outlaw he is Norman French. They both speak fluent French, Alan is French, just with a name change and their King, Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Coeur de Lion, was French. It is estimated Richard spent as little as six months, in total, in England. Book three, King’s Man is also set in Europe, or France. Book four, Warlord pretty much all France, a brief dalliance in England, but nothing to get worked up about. Five, Grail Knight France again. Six’s The Iron Castle is ‘Chateau Gaillard’ – so you tell me where that is set. The King’s Assassin, book seven, will continue in much the same vein, it seems: “As rebellion brews across the country and Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders…” Not Sherwood, where even Danes know Robin Hood lives. But Flanders where…no one ever thinks Robin Hood has been, let alone lived. That’s the problem that has developed for me and I’ll wager for a lot of casual readers, it isn’t about Robin of Sherwood. It’s not about Robin and there’s very, very little set in Sherwood.

Then, the ’friendship’ between Alan and Robin is largely one-way a lot of the time and in the most of the books, very little is returned. On either side. Often, though Alan professes his love for his Lord and ‘old friend’, it’s hard to see why he should feel that way. Clearly, we are to feel that the love that was generated in Outlaw sees Alan through the subsequent books. To be honest, were I Alan, I’d have told Robin to piss off a long time ago. Robin takes him away from where he wants to be, puts him in danger at every turn, talks to him like he is an errant, ignorant child and generally doesn’t do anything much – apart from lending him money – to deserve Alan’s professed devotion. Alan too, isn’t the outlaw band member. He’s mostly French (though in some of the books I’ve listened to on Audible, he’s had a strong Yorkshire accent) and thanks to Robin and King Richard, he’s a land-owning Knight and Lord. So, if you read what he says and think ‘English,’ think again. It is perhaps, or would have been, historically accurate, but it’s not what one thinks when one wants to hear in tales of Robin Hood. OK, maybe Angus thought that Robin and friends, in Sherwood, fighting the Sheriff, stealing/rich, giving/poor, was too limiting and that all that could be said, had been written. But I beg to differ. And that is partly based on the fantastic Robin (and Alan) he created in Outlaw and partly based on delivering on the ‘Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest’ tag-line of the first book.

By taking the two friends out of England, I’m afraid Angus has ‘ordinarified’ them. Alan is just another, often down-at-heel, wannabe Knight and Robin is a pretty ordinary schemer, charlatan, liar, cheat and Lord. Not even a rogue, loveable or otherwise. He has a lot of connections that pop up here and there, but his actual dealing with those connections, we don’t see. He does want to get back to England, back to his home, with his wife Mary-Ann (you see what he’s done there?) and live happily ever after, but…that home is in Yorkshire and his wife lives with their sons in France, has done for several books now and, if it were possible, seems to have even fewer links with England, than Robin.

However, (it’s not all bad) take the book(s) on face value, and you have a really excellent, action-packed, riveting read. Each story is superbly well-planned and executed, contains all the highs and lows you’re looking for in your fighting historical fiction and, in my humble opinion, contains some of the most poignant, thoughtful, though-provoking writing on friendship, longing, regret and hope, it has ever been my pleasure to come across. The Alan that we meet at the start and finish (and sometimes in between) of the books, is a magnificent creation and should have a book or two of his own. No doubts about it. The Iron Castle doesn’t disappoint either (unless you’re looking for Robin, in Sherwood, as above). It begins in 1203, at the end of the time of England’s possession of the territories in France that became the English King’s after The Norman Conquest (there is an absolutely superb Historical Note at the end that you really should stay on for. Angus could easily write (a) wonderful Non-Fiction history book(s) in the future). The majority of the action, takes place in and around the siege of the Iron Castle of Chateau Galliard as Alan and Robin are there to help save the castle from being captured by the French and thereby help King John save Normandy (Interestingly, only King John is the same as the character we know from the Robin Hood books and films). It is a tense struggle, full of incident and really well and effectively written for the action taking place in relatively confined spaces. It is also book looking at the concept of a man’s honour and the dependancy on it to the extent that someone hides behind their honour to cover their own shortcomings or wrong-doings. Robin might say “A man’s honour is the most important of his possessions” but Alan (standing in for us) experiences it in quite a different, more realistic way. Buy this book, enjoy it for what it is. Just don’t go thinking it’s about the Robin Hood you’re thinking of.

Me. On Goodreads.

Review: Grail Knight

Grail Knight
Grail Knight by Angus Donald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m going to have to come right out and say it – I’m a huge fan of Angus Donald’s Outlaw Chronicles series. And Grail Knight is, in my humble opinion, his best yet.

I’m also a huge fan of Angus’ Alan Dale. Especially he ‘old’ one, the narrator, at the start and end of the books. The books hinge on Alan. He is the main character. He is doing the remembering and the telling of the stories and they are from his point of view. The old Alan writes with such pathos and feeling as though only now can he understand what the young Alan doesn’t always. About what he got mixed up in – and had to fight his way out of – and about Robin Hood and his own relationship with him. I, for one, would think there is mileage in a book solely of ‘old’ Alan’s reflections and his life ’now,’ the period when he’s recounting the tales of his youth. Check out the vivid, almost Disney-esque descriptions of Sherwood near the start and tell me that couldn’t hold its own throughout a whole novel. There you go.

Grail Knight was set up nicely in the previous book, ‘Warlord’ and gets going from the off. But not how you’re thinking. Not with a “Hey! Let’s go look for the Grail!”, from the start. It’s more subtle than that. The story casts out several strands, builds seemingly in other directions but then comes together to coalesce (if strands can coalesce) into that noblest of Middle Ages quests. But the reasons and the thinking behind the quest, from the characters and Angus here, are if you’re up for it, very interesting.

Of course, in the period the book is set, the Middle Ages, it is impossible to avoid talk of religion. It was, it seems, much more a part of peoples’ daily lives, than we can possibly imagine. In Angus Donald’s Outlaw series, there are often what seems like the equivalent of two religions they didn’t understand, fighting for control over their lives. Christianity maybe the ‘official’ religion, but people, out in the fields and forests, still need the help found in an older religion. Many have replaced faith in the gods and goddesses of the fields and the trees and the pools, with faith in other, newer kinds of equally inanimate objects that may or may not have had some connection with the new, one God. Which is how the book starts, with Alan trying to make sense of people putting faith in an ordinary-looking old flask they say was given to their priest in a dream. But which Alan knows he bought for a few coins in France, when he needed something to drink from. The book is in some ways an interesting exploration of who is right. The Grail of the title is nothing special to look at either. Angus goes for the idea that it was a fairly ordinary bowl, used by Jesus and the disciples at the last supper to mix wine in, but then held His blood, or drops thereof, at the time of His crucifixion. It is only special because of what it is believed to have contained. As is Alan’s flask. The Grail, many people believe, has power because of what it contained. Alan believes his flask could have the power he wants it to have, for the same reasons.

So, what Alan has to wrestle with is the, to him, absurdity, though sometimes the necessity, of trusting in or believing in, something you know cannot be what it seems others want it to be. During the novel, as events unfold, his view doesn’t exactly change, but he becomes more understanding. If someone thinks something can or did do what they said, who is he to contradict their belief? Alan, while having absolute faith in something, someone, he has never seen but has been told controls every aspect of his life, struggles to understand others’ faith in something they can see, right in front of them. Is it the ‘real’ grail they find? It is if enough people believe it is. It is, even if you’re the only person who believes it is. It is if Robin Hood tells you it is what you’re looking for. Interesting.

Grail Knight is an excellent, all-action, full-blooded story on – at least – a couple of levels and one which will reward you richly however you come at it. There is derring-do, there are narrow escapes against impossible odds. Nemeses are confronted, cultures clashed. Other varieties of Christianities looked at. There is remorse and redemption, friends measured and tested and some found wanting. There are other shocks and plenty of ‘endings’ (for various characters and not all of the at the point of a sword kind) a-plenty too, especially in the second half. Angus makes some very brave decisions on his characters’ behalf (you may need to set your face to stun on a couple of occasions). But they are the right decisions, as there can be no doubt now that Angus OWNS Sherwood, Robin and all.

If there was one way I think Angus could improve the series, it would be to have more tales set in England. His characters have ranged far and wide down the five books and I think that it is time to take them back to their mythological roots. He has reinvented the characters, yes, but he should be wary of taking them too far away from what it could be argued, people know and love about them. I have no idea what the storyline for ‘The Iron Castle’ is, but if that too involves foreign travel, so be it. The next one then should be set in England, in Sherwood (and not in caves) and feature the sherrif, or someone similar.

As I’ve tried to say, Grail Knight is a beautifully planned and executed novel. Richly imagined, I would think is the way reviewers would describe it. I really couldn’t have enjoyed its thrilling and rewarding tale if I’d tried. If you thought that with book number five an author could perhaps be forgiven, that it might even be understandable, for taking his or her foot off the gas, eye off the ball. Then with Angus, you need to think again. Grail Knight will be a tough act to follow, but then I’ve thought that sort of thing with Angus before. I thought King’s Man would be difficult to follow, but he proved me wrong and I’m so much looking forward to being proved wrong again, when Alan and Robin – and some of the others from Sherwood – return for book six The Iron Castle – very soon.

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Review: Warlord

Warlord
Warlord by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How good it is to be back with Angus, Alan, Hanno and…the other bloke…oh yes, Robin of Locksley. How I’ve missed them.

So, what’s been a-happenin’ while I’ve been away?

Well, before we start, at the end of King’s Man there was a really poignant, thoughtful passage from the elder Alan Dale, musing on his life as the younger Alan. The memories were fresh, the people he knew still young, vibrant and alive. Never to weary, grow old or fade. A lovely ending to a superb book. So it was with no little anticipation, even excitement (I know, pathetic, isn’t it?) that I opened Warlord, the 4th in Angus Donald’s heroic re-imagining of the Robin Hood legends.

So, in King’s Man, Alan Dale seemed to be becoming more independent of Robin. Still a part of Robin’s band and one of his friends, not entirely stepping out of his shadow, but certainly seeing himself as, and being treated more and more like, an equal. That independence could be said to have come to fulfilment here in Warlord. Which is a book about Alan. His circumstances, his past and what is making him tick. Robin Hood actually only first makes an appearance on page 71. As I’ve mentioned before, Alan Dale is more of the centre for the ‘Outlaw’ tales’ focus than the reviews and the hype around a ‘new interpretation of the Robin Hood legend’ would have you believe. The books (I’ve read so far) could equally be about the legend of Alan Dale – and his friend/Lord/Master/protector/ally, Robin Hood. However, that probably wouldn’t sell books by the truckload, no matter how much more accurate it would actually be. And that’s probably why I’m not working in publishing right now.

Anyone could have written a series of books – indeed many anyones have and are still doing so – about Robin Hood’s life and times, narrated by and with Robin in the centre. But by looking slightly to the side, by actually writing about Alan, Angus is able to both root the stories in the historical reality of the period (so much as we are sure about), and also show his ideas for the (legendary, but most likely fictional) character of Robin Hood. By comparing and contrasting the Robin Hood of his legend, with what must have been typical behaviour for a chivalrous Knight of the period. Alan is much more than just the narrator however, which was my thought when I read the first few pages of the first book. He is far from a passive observer. His strong Christian beliefs are the light, while Robin and his more Pagan, more earthy, perhaps more real-world values, is (in) the shadow(s) created by that light. Because Robin doesn’t share Alan’s beliefs and seems more of a carefree, seize each opportunity as it comes, no matter from whence it comes, sort of character, it isn’t always plain-sailing between the two. In Alan’s view Robin is, more often than not, just a money-grabbing, opportunist god-less Pagan. Sometimes, only Alan’s respect for Robin’s sense of unquestioning loyalty in protecting those inside his family circle, keeps the two together. My thought is, that what perhaps makes Angus’s Robin appealing to us heathen sinners of today, is that Robin is actually like more like we are nowadays than Alan ever can be. I certainly have found some of Alan’s decisions only really understandable, if I try to imagine I’m back living in the late 12th Century.

The story told in Warlord, is actually a very interesting medieval mystery period piece, set in what we now call northern France. To have Alan at least in some way involved with the later life and death of Richard, Warlord has to be set in France. But to cope with the risk of readers being unable to identify with the Robin Hood legend going on in various 12th Century, not actually France places (and not swinging through the trees of Sherwood, drinking in ‘The Trip To Jerusalem’ and singe-ing the Sheriff of Nottingham’s beard), he concentrates his story’s focus on the tale of Alan’s search for the truth surrounding his father’s expulsion and death. In northern France. And ‘France’, we should remember, plays a very important part in the world of these English heroes. The characters speak French. They actually ARE French, for all intents and purposes. Alan is really Allan D’Alle, son of a French father, Henri. And Richard, Richard Cœur de Lion, the ‘Lionheart’ is in France, because it was his home. Because he is Duke of Normandy first and foremost. He might have been born in Oxford – only 91 years after Hastings – he spoke no English and was, during the 10 years of his reign, only actually in England for a total of six months. It’s only Robin that’s truly English and he’s the heathen. No change there, then.

Alan is in France at Richard’s request and the book opens with him riding headlong into trouble, to try and break the siege of a castle loyal to Richard, which is surrounded by the vastly superior forces of the King of (most of the rest of) France. They cling on to the castle, after many sterling deeds of derring-do, by the skin of their teeth. Then, Richard arrives, full of the joys of spring, and they have to move on, chasing ever after the cowardly French King. Alan can’t do much other than be told where to go and who to fight by Richard, but eventually does get time off for good behaviour to go on a quest of his own. He has spoken with a priest who knew his father and might be able to shed some light on his father’s background in France, the circumstances surrounding his expulsion and possibly who the mysterious figure, the ‘man you cannot refuse’, who might be behind his death, is. While he gets plenty of information from this priest, he also hears plenty that both disquiets him and shrouds his fathers past in yet more layers of mystery. Alan follows the trail through various regions of France all the way to Paris. Noting on his way, that the people who have information he might find useful, have a nasty habit of dying. Before, during and after they’ve spoken to him. When he finds the truth, and the reason behind the truth, it has been both staring him in the face and turns out to be way more dangerous than he could imagine. No one escapes Alan’s suspicion, not even Robin. He knows more than he’s letting on. Could he even have had some part in it all?

The main action of Warlord does seem to end a little early, to allow the next in the series, Grail Knight to be set up, but that apart, Warlord is a passionate, full-on, full-blooded, medieval tale of mystery and suspense. Events happen thick and fast; as you’d want them to, not always as you’d expect and not always as you’d actually want them too. And it whets the appetite for Grail Knight. Sitting on the shelf over there *points over there*

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All day and all of the Knight

At the risk of this turning into the 'Official Angus Donald Appreciation Society Blog' – not that that would necessarily be a bad thing, you understand – I find I need to mention the fastest wordsmith this side of Sherwood Forest, once again.

Anyway, continuing his assault on the eyes of discerning, Medieval action-lovers everywhere, by means of an onslaught of announcements concerning new books, new short stories, new shoes – ok maybe not the new shoes – comes the unveiling of the cover for the 5th in his The Outlaw Chronicles series; Grail Knight.

This is it:

Now, that's a strong cover, don't you think?

And this is how I read it:

We presume the figure with his back to us, is Robin Hood. Though as the stories centre around and are written from the viewpoint of his faithful friend Alan Dale, it could just as easily be him.

Why? Well usually, if the title refers to a person as Grail Knight does, we might expect that a single figure featured on the front to be the person of the title. So here, a figure on the cover who looks like what we expect Robin Hood to look like, must be Robin Hood? But Grail Knight. Robin is not Sir Robin Hood, is he? He's an Earl. It's Sir Alan Dale, don't forget.

Then again, the figure doesn't look like what we might commonly think a Middle Ages Knight would look like either, does it? With the armour and all. Plenty of examples of that sort of Knight are coming the other way! So maybe the guy with his back to us is Robin. Most people seeing the cover are going to 'see' Robin, that's the important part.

And, as you've now got your hand in the air shouting “Sir! Sir, Please Sir, me Sir!” I'll say, yes, it is also interesting that another thing it doesn't show, is a Grail.

It shows a man facing a line of onward rushing mounted warriors. Not a situation we would like to be faced with. But then, we aren't. Robin is between us and them. Does that make us feel safer, that he is out in front, between us and what looks like if not certain death, then a situation that is certainly going to result in a full Trauma Room at the Nottingham A & E? But if there is only him between us and them, then we are going to need to watch out, and soon.

In reality, it says there is danger, what looks like overwhelming danger, coming and it's coming fast. Robin is all that stands between us and it, so we better get ready to fight. To the death. Now read on…

Personally, I don't need any more of an invitation than that.

Notice there that I haven't mentioned that he is holding a bow and arrow. I have no idea if it is a Longbow, it maybe is. That's what I'm sure most people would say Robin would have had. But I have no idea if what Robin actually might have used at the time, would have been a Longbow. Precisely what kind of bow is actually is, isn't important. The whole together says to the people looking for this kind of thing, 'Robin Hood!' Even if you didn't know the story revolved around him.

There was a long and decidedly unnecessary post on Angus' Facebook page from someone seemingly saying they were something of an expert in all things Archery and detailing at great length all that was wrong with the central figure's Archery abilities, as shown by the cover illustration. Setting to one side for a moment that this is not the cover to World Archery Review 2013, but that of an adventure story set 800-odd years before modern archery techniques and equipment – and that this figure is about to be ridden down by a whole host of knights on horseback, so it is perhaps understandable if his stance might well be looked down on by the Olympic Archery judges. Or that if one Archery expert sees this and tells the other three people he knows from Archery club, that they shouldn't buy this because 'like, that would just never happen I real life', I'm sure Angus will live with losing those 4 sales. As the vast majority of people in the market for a rip-roaring adventure set in Sherwood Forest in the Middle Ages, are going to look at Grail Knight and say 'it's Robin Hood! I'll take it!', I'm also willing to overlook any possible Archery faux pas.

What a book cover has to do – apart from hold all the pages together (!) – is say 'this is what it's about', and be in keeping with the genre. So an Angus Donald doesn't get put amongst the Marian Keyes. And it must say to me; 'this is for you'. It has to look the same as others in the genre, but different. If you already have read books of this sort and are in the market for something else while your favourite writer gets his or her next one ready, you have to think 'it looks like I might like this one, I'll give it a go'. Obviously, the most important part of a cover's design these days, is the '2 for £5' sticker, but apart from that, all of the above applies. I think. If you think differently, you're very welcome.

Bottom line: This looks like a right action-packed, Middle Ages adventure. That's what I'm looking for. I'll buy/read it. Now!

But blather aside, what's the story about?

This is from Angus' own website and is the back cover 'blurb':

A home burned

When past crimes resurface, Sir Alan Dale, loyal lieutenant of the Earl of Locksley – better known as the murderous thief Robin Hood – faces terrible vengeance at the hands of those that he and his master have wronged.

A family threatened

With his beloved wife on her deathbed, Sir Alan must seek salvation by following Robin into the lair of their enemy, the mysterious leader of a band of renegade Templars, on the trail of the most precious object in the world; the Holy Grail.

Only a miracle can save them

As vengeful Templars hound Robin and his men across England and France, deals done with mighty lords turn to bloody battle. The companions must find the Cup of Christ before they gave certain destruction.

Myth, mayhem and masterly storytelling meet in the astounding new epic from the bestselling author of Outlaw and Holy Warrior.

As an aside. I much preferred the US version of the first in the Outlaw series. See these two:

I thought the American version (left) conveyed much more effectively, the mysterious, mythological – the Robin Hood in the Sherwood of our imaginations, spirit of the stories, than the UK version (below). Like trying to glimpse a folk memory through the forests of time. Glimpse rings of smoke through the trees, as my fellow Midlander Robert Plant once so gloriously put it. Personally, I'd have lost the arrow, or had it running behind the lettering of Outlaw, as currently, it's obscuring the 'W' a little too much. Or had it going from right to left and a little smaller, as the 'O' would allow more room for the arrow-head without obscuring the letter too much.

I would sure like to hear the reasons for the change. Presuming the UK version was done first.

Gail Knight is out August 1st in the UK.

 

Robin begins

Angus Donald, eh?

Angus DonaldNot content with writing a really rather wonderful series of game-changing Historical Fiction novels based around the legendary Robin Hood, now, with his left hand, he’s penning a series of short stories. ‘Shorter stories’ maybe a better description, as they clock in at around the 10,000 word mark he says.

Again based, as far as I can tell, in and around the world of Robin Hood, a world he now owns. They will be released – the first one at least – soon as e-books.

After days of careful combing of Twitter, I have been able to piece some pieces together – into larger pieces…

…and of course, he posted this on his Facebook account this last Friday:

My first short story – The Rise of Robin Hood – is available to pre-order on Amazon: http://amzn.to/VPz8D5

It’s actually being released as an e-book, if that’s the right terminology, and that’s the cover there to the left, as much as these things can have a ‘cover’.

What that means is, you can pre-order the Kindle download on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. The latter is of course the US store, where poor saps like me who live in Denmark have to jump through a few hoops and download our Kindle books from.

You can of course get it in the Danish – and any other kind of – Apple’s iBooks store.

Here then is the official line on the story:

Something is stirring in the heart of Sherwood.

Two desperate young men undertake their first robbery in the tangled depths of a medieval forest. The first is a cut-throat charmer named Robert Odo; the second a gigantic, battle-hardened warrior called John. But, as the novice thieves quickly discover, they are not the only outlaws in Sherwood.

A legend is born in this short-story prequel to Angus Donald’s masterly series The Outlaw Chronicles, perfect for devoted fans and newcomers alike.

Further reports, reaching me from Angus’ Twitter account, would also suggest that this is just the first of a series of short stories based around (or slightly to the side of, I’d say), Angus’ Robin Hood world. He has already said that the second will be called The Betrayal of Father Tuck’. From what he says, it looks like this one is also ready to go into cyberspace, bar the purchase of extra electronic Tippex:

My agent has just told me that he really likes The Betrayal of Father Tuck (short story No2). Good. OK – now, must get on with some work

I would imagine, for those of you who prefer to hold a book, not a computer, while you read, that depending on how many stories Angus will write in this new series, they will be collected and brought out in a ‘physical’ edition at some point in the future. A follow-up post on Facebook says this:

Not in the near future…alas. Maybe in a year or two, if the first three short stories are a success, I might write some more and gather them together into a whole paper book

Seems like he’s been asked to do three so far, with maybe more based on sales and if he finds he has more to say on the characters, I guess. I really hope we’re going to hear Angus’ view on Robin’s origins. In the first one, ‘Outlaw’, he was for me a rather shadowy figure, an almost Green Man pagan spirit. Having some background on him (Robin), with which to add more substance to the spirit, will be really intriguing. I’m sure Angus will be able to add to the mystery, rather than dispel it.

So, that’s what we know at the moment. I have so far read all of Angus Donald’s Robin Hood series on iPhone/iPad. Had absolutely no problems getting hold of them from the Danish iBooks site – and thoroughly enjoyed each and every one. In fact, I think they’ve been getting better as the series goes on. the last one I readKing’s Man’, was a wonderful, thought-provoking book. Which is why I will be elbowing my way to the front of the digital queue for this one – and then the others.

Review: King’s Man

King's Man
King’s Man by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is book three of Angus Donald’s re-boot of the Robin Hood legend. The year is now 1192, and the good news is, that after taking part in the battles of the Crusades in the Holy Land, Alan Dale and Robin Hood have returned to Merrie Olde England. The bad news is, that their King, Richard the Lionheart, whilst also making his way back home, has been captured by his enemies in Europe and is being held for ransom in a castle in Austria. And back in what is turning out to be a not quite as Merrie England as the one they departed from, Alan and Robin discover that Richard’s brother, Prince John, has been busy making plans, capturing land and castles and generally making a nuisance of himself planning to be King in Richard’s absence. An absence he is intent on prolonging by any and all means possible; assasination, bribery, treason…and that’s just for starters.

And the good news for me is, I have to admit; it feels good to have Robin and Alan back where they belong, in England and rampaging through the forests of Sherwood. See, even Alan knows it is good for Robin as well:

“Sherwood was, as it had been for many years, the home of his heart, his spiritual sanctuary, his woodland fortress. He would be quite safe there.”

So, isn’t he back where his legend belongs, physically and spiritually?

In fact the whole of King’s Man feels more of a certain and convincing story for being back in ye goode olde greene and pleasant land (be interesting to see how Warlord, the fourth installment, develops the story, as I understand that one to take Robin and Alan over to France). It is a thoroughly convincing tale of 12th Century life, love and death. An emotional rollercoaster ride encompassing desperate battles, last-minute escapes – from of course, seemingly impossible situations – bursting with thrills, surprises, nerve-shredding close combat, huge surprises and fist-pumping “that’ll learn ya!” satisfying comeuppances. Phew!

And Robin Hood.

It is worth remembering that while Robin Hood grabs the headlines in reviews and the story does revolve around him, this is actually the tale of Alan Dale. Robin has been, as perhaps befits someone more legend than man, something of a supernatural figure moving in and out the background during much of the story so far. However, in King’s Man, I feel he steps much more onto the centre stage of the story. There is for me, much more of a feeling of Robin steering events, not events steering him. He is still a harsh, non-PC Robin, but also a more rounded, even likeable character. Even with those silver eyes.

Alan Dale narrates the story, but to be honest, it hasn’t always been easy to keep liking him. He can be a rather annoying and cautious worrier, always blaming himself for when heavens conspire and things don’t go to plan. For instance, when Robin’s brother refuses to do his part in relieving a siege of Robin’s castle, Alan wonders if he is actually responsible, for not asking more politely.

But then Alan is more a man of his time than Robin is. Alan’s inner doubts and tribulations surely mirror the prevailing zeitgeist. Where religious fervour played up self-doubt, tolerated no contradictions and baseless suspicion chased its own tail. As happens here, fiction was turned to ‘fact’ because no one dare deny it and so proved itself true in the minds of those looking for that proof. It is a similar environment to that of the time in which Giles Kristian’s The Bleeding Land is set, just some 400 years earlier. With ordinary people struggling to come out from under the suffocating blanket of religious fervor and blind doctrine. And their lords and self appointed masters seeking by all means possible to keep them in check with threats of eternal damnation, excommunication – and worse! The ordinary person up to his or her knees in mud in the fields, spoke (what became) English. The ruling classes – Richard himself of course – spoke French. The Church rituals were deliberately all in Latin, so the ordinary person had no idea what was going on, and churchmen could be the only means of getting closer to God’s will and the only outlet for His displeasure. Sweet.

Luckily for us, Robin has no time for all that petty-minded religious nonsense and goes his own way. And it is that what has surely endeared him to people through the ages.

“He had that wonderous ability, did Robin, of commanding love in the people around him, no matter what he did.” As Alan notes.

But then again, Robin can be as manipulative as the church in using Christianity and other people’s beliefs, against them, and for his own purposes:

“I was privately amused that my master, a man who I knew did not have the slightest allegiance to the Pope in Rome, or any high Christian churchman for that matter, should use this law as a justification, I assumed, for executing these men.”

Then, when the Templars send him notice that they expect him to appear before a Kangeroo court to answer trumped-up charges concerning his lack of faith, wouldn’t we all, in such a position, have loved to have told the messenger to go away and bid him;

“That he ask the huskier novices to refrain from buggering him for a few moments to allow him time to shove this inquisition up his fundament.”

Go Robin! Go Robin! Go Robin!

But then, the title, King’s Man…hmm…interesting. Which King, which man? Having previously sworn allegiance to King Richard, there’s no doubt Alan is King Richard’s man. So is Robin. And Robin is actually working to a secret agenda agreed with Richard in the Holy Land. Then there’s Prince John, a man who would be King in Richard’s absence. Alan also manages to pledge allegiance to John at one point in the story, becoming the would-be King’s man. However, in my mind, there is no doubt who the real King of this story is, was and always will always be: Robin Hood. And Alan is his man. Like it or not.

And Alan professes not to like it on many an occasion. Giving rise to the point in the book where I realised I had really warmed to the inner turmoil in the character of Alan Dale. When Alan professes disgust at becoming the man he cannot help loving.

“What was I turning into? Would I become like my master, the most cold-hearted, ruthless killer I had ever encountered? I shivered, though the day was quite warm.”

As i said earlier (if you’re still with me), Alan is of course recounting his story of his life in the company of the legend Robin Hood, many years after the events took place. The concept of the novels, of a character writing his memories down long after the events occurred, is not a new one. But here, especially at the end of this novel, is one of the most poignant passages I have read anywhere in a long time. After doubts over the intentions of his family have risen, an older, wiser, wistful Alan emerges and (I hope Angus won’t mind me quoting him at length) describes the feelings he has about how it is to be looking back over his life and the time he spent with Robin. I’m going to have to admit to have been truly moved when Alan says:

“I remember my glorious past so clearly, and my head is there for most of the day while I write. And where better to spend my last few years on this earth than with my younger, stronger self – with that young man so full of light and love and hope? The indignities of age come to all men who live long enough – but not all men can say that they had the friendship of kings and outlaws and heroes in their prime; that they walked proud and tall, without fear – before the weight and care of years bowed their backs. But I can. I can say, I can swear before God, that I have played my part on the world’s stage. And played it to the fullest…And I was a warrior, once, a knight of England.”

Simple, dignified, wonderful piece. It reminded me of the heart-breaking scene at the end of Shakespeare In Love, where Shakespeare promises Viola; “You will never age for me, nor fade, nor die”, because they must go their separate ways and know they will never meet again. She will be forever as he sees her now, forever in his memories.

Just as Alan sees his Robin, forever young, forever in his Sherwood sanctuary and forever safe in the glow of Alan’s memories: “A savage warrior, a lawless thief, a Church-condemned heretic and, may Almighty God forgive me, for many years, my good and true friend.”

So, what’s not to like?

(This is really a 4.5 book. A 4 for the most, with an extra half for that last section alone. I don’t want to give 5 stars, as I want him to try and beat this next time out. Won’t be easy, but my philosophy has always been; if you think you can’t do better – give up and move on. And I hope Angus stays with Robin Hood for many years to come. ‘Cause I’ll be staying as well).

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Review: Holy Warrior

Holy Warrior
Holy Warrior by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A powerful, provocative and thought-provoking read, this is the second installment in Angus Donald’s re-interpretation of the Robin Hood myth.

Even though you are prepared for this not being your usual Robin Hood story, Angus Donald still keeps you gripped and surprises you at nearly every turn. Mainly, I’d say, because like the first in the series, ‘Outlaw’, whilst of course headlined as a Robin Hood story, it was in reality more about the tale of Alan Dale, than of Robin Hood.

‘Holy Warrior’ is the same and more so.

Angus Donald’s Robin Hood is a dark and fairly mysterious presence, often in the background of the story. When taking the lead, he is an interesting enigma; a pragmatic, powerful figure, an idealist, but also a realist. Happily for me though, he is still the pagan Robin from ‘Outlaw’. He hasn’t a lot of time or patience for Alan’s ‘new’ Christian preaching, preferring I thought, to steer his own course through his own beliefs and ideals. Here, he seems to be what I hope I interpret correctly; a coalescence of the pagan history, legends and folk heroes of old Britain (older than ‘England’), an honourable man, of and for the people.

It’s a harsh book in some ways. The first one I thought, was necessarily harsh in its description of Robin Hood and his earthy, matter-of-fact paganism. Some incidents which, for me, were integral in both separating this Robin Hood from the one we think we knew (thanks to tradition, Hollywood and the Nottingham tourist people) and emphasising the fact that the Robin Hood legend has developed out of a strong, much more ancient British pagan tradition – encompassing, amongst other traditions, the Green Man – was not to everyone’s taste. And those who found a certain ‘sex’ scene too much in book one, will certainly find plenty to enjoy being shocked about here. Better stay indoors with your Mills & Boon ‘histories’  the rest of your life then, because this is how it was. Not always as nice as Errol Flynn would have you believe.

But, as I’ve said before, this is really the story of – and of course, by – Alan Dale. Alan worships the ground Robin walks on, especially you could say – as Alan is a good God-fearing Christian – when they reach The Holy Land. But, as Robin confuses, insults, disappoints and angers Alan on a regular basis, the hero worship is often also against Alan’s better judgement. He cannot leave him, though he sometimes wishes he could.

We learn more about Robin and what he believes in, partly because he is taken away from his comfort zone of England and Sherwood. The story roams through the Mediterranean, from the Norman stronghold of Sicily, to Cyprus and on to The Holy Land with The Third Crusade. Robin and his band of men are at the beck and call of King Richard, in repayment of a debt and clearly against his better judgement. But who is using who? It seems that Robin has his own agenda to follow out in The Holy Land. And it is, shall we say, more about pennies, than pennitence.

There is no way Robin is the title’s Holy Warrior. Maybe Richard is and Alan would probably like to think he is.

Whilst the next book in the series is called The King’s Man, I would say that title actually was more relevant here, as a reference to Alan’s relation to Robin. Robin is the ‘king’ of Alan’s world and Alan is, though he might frequently say he wishes it wasn’t so, is always going to be his man.

Looking forward to the next one. Ooh! I just downloaded it!

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Review: Outlaw

Outlaw
Outlaw by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Outlaw, is an enjoyable, even memorable, re-imagining and re-exploration if you will, of the Robin Hood legend. All our favourite fiends, friends and enemies are here – ‘Maid Marion’, Friar Tuck, ‘Little’ John, the Sherrif of Nottingham, and Guy of Gisborne – there’s action and adventure a-plenty and it all takes place in and around Sherwood Forest.

But forget what you thought you knew of Robin Hood. There’s no swinging happily through Sherwood Forest’s lush, leafy glades, no slapping thighs while dressed in Lincoln green. He still robs from the rich of course, but he keeps more than a bit for himself, as you would. This Robin Hood is a successful leader, an inspiring personality, a friend, a lover – but he’s also a constant, threatening presence; you’re never entirely sure what he believes or what he will do next. It is the last throws of an older England, an ancient, honest England fighting to survive against the overwhelming odds of the all-conquering Normans.

However, the story is perhaps more about the young Alan Dale. From an impoverished childhood and an early – not entirely successful – career as common thief in Nottingham, he becomes involved with the real thieves and outlaws of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest. Typically, one (Nor)man’s thief, is another (English)man’s freedom fighter and Alan Dale is inexorably drawn to the outlaws through necessity and curiosity. The book follows battles to remain alive, his ‘education’ at the hands of themtough forest outlaws – but also from a whole host of troubadors, Knights, lords and ladies – through many adventures up and down England, leading to the Outlaws’ final confrontation in Sherwood, with the seemingly superior forces of the Sherrif of Nottingham. It’s not really a surprise that he survives, of course; he has already made clear that he is narrating this in the latter days of a long life, but it is genuinely interesting, not to say tensely exciting, finding out how he is to do it.

And there are many here who have been forced to leave their families, their hearths and homes by so called law-men, by bullies who claim power of life and death over you in the name of the King…And there are many here who have been injured, humiliated and denied your natural rights as free Englishmen.

Yet there is another all-conquering force at work in this book’s (not so) Merrie England; Christianity. It seems there are many ordinary free Englishmen who are still unrepentantly Pagan and in this, the book reminded me a lot of the struggle to keep the pagan faith alive, that is central to another book I read recently, Viking: King’s Man, by Tim Severin. Indeed, ‘Little’ John is clearly Viking inspired.

Christianity is obviously the religion of the rich and powerful. It is a ‘top down’ religion, closely bound up with and indeed cynically used by, the Normans. Used to instil a fear of their ‘betters’ – and a fear of the consequences of revolt – in the ordinary people of England. As a Norman comments on a speech Robin Hood makes on the eve of battle;

“He talks like a ranting priest, but he rants about the most extraordinary Godless, unnatural things: Freedom from the Church? Freedom from our rightful lords, who have been set above us by God? What nonsense, what dangerous, heretical nonsense.”

However, the older, Pagan beliefs, are closely associated with the fields and forests and wild places. An honest, down to earth faith. As a denizen of Sherwood, living in a seemingly Christian society, this Robin Hood uneasily straddles the two faiths. But, as a true man of the people, he is more Pagan than Christian. Or is he? Several times through the book, just as Alan Dale seems to have got a fix on Robin Hood’s values, or what he believes; Robin moves in another mysterious way. He seems to hate Christianity and perhaps with good reason, for Christianity is bound up with the Normans, the two forces combining to oppress the ordinary, hard-working, pagan worshiping English people. Robin’s honest, down to earth people need a hero, they need a new King Arthur and Robin Hood is it.

Was he a real person? He is surely, historically speaking, more a fantasy figure, than a real, historically provable figure. Robin Hood is almost certainly a coalescence of the ordinary people’s collective hopeful imagination – hoping for inspiration, help and comfort against the oppressive regime of the Normans and the voracious march of Christianity. Much in the vein of King Arthur, who is mentioned many times in ‘Outlaw’; Robin Hood is a rememberance of a glorious ‘golden’ age of England, now lost, the return of which needs an Arthur-like spear-head figure. Robin Hood.

Was he real? Probably not. But if he had been, he would certainly more like Angus Donald’s Robin, than all the Hollywood or tv studio versions you’re more familiar with. Looking forward to getting hold of the next in the series.

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