16 December, 2009

Outlaw, by Angus Donald. Book review

Edition reviewed: Sphere, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7515-4208-0. 365 pages. Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.

Set in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire in 1188-1189, Outlaw is a retelling of the Robin Hood legends. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine has a walk-on part, and some characters are based on noblemen named in contemporary records but about whom little is known beyond the name (e.g Sir Ralph Murdac, who was Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests at the time). The main characters are figures from the legends (Robin Hood, Marian, Tuck, Little John, Alan Dale) or are fictional.

Thirteen-year-old Alan Dale, only son of a poor widow, scrapes a meagre living as a thief and cutpurse in and around the busy town of Nottingham. When he is caught stealing a pie and narrowly escapes the imprisonment and mutilation ordered by the cruel Sheriff, young Alan joins Robin Hood’s band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Growing up fast, he is taught swordsmanship by a hostage Knight Templar and develops his natural musical talent under the tutelage of a French troubadour, until he takes his place as a trusted member of Robin’s band. Robin is effectively the feudal lord of Sherwood, and Alan witnesses at first hand the ruthlessness by which Robin controls his territory. When Robin and the evil Sheriff Ralph Murdac become rivals not only for power but for the hand of the beautiful heiress Marie-Anne, Robin decides to challenge Murdac in a pitched battle – but a traitor in the band could destroy them all.

The tag line on the cover says, “Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest”, and a sticker on the front proclaims, “As good as Bernard Cornwell or your money back”. Between them they give a pretty good idea of what to expect. Here we have Robin Hood as a sort of twelfth-century Don Corleone, all-powerful within his territory, maintaining a private army and providing protection to those who pay him and brutal punishment to those who challenge or betray him. (Not so very far removed from normal procedure for a feudal lord, except that Robin is outside the law and answerable to – and protected by – no-one). Narrated in first person by Alan Dale, looking back on his life from old age, the structure is reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred novels or his King Arthur trilogy. Though Alan appears to be shaping up to be an altogether sunnier character than Uhtred, perhaps more like Bernard Cornwell’s Derfel. It will be interesting to see how his character develops as the series progresses.

As well as Alan Dale, the band’s minstrel, all the familiar figures from the legends make an appearance, often with an inventive take on their stories and their association with Robin. Evil Sheriff Murdac is a villain in the Basil Rathbone mould, a well-groomed and fastidious weasel of a man, and his henchman Guy of Gisbourne is here given an unusual provenance (which I won’t spoil by revealing). Little John and Friar Tuck are instantly recognisable, and the famous quarterstaffs-on-the-bridge incident appears, though not quite in its usual guise. Robin’s beloved Marian (Marie-Anne) is here a great lady, heiress to the (fictional) earldom of Locksley, and Robin himself is a disinherited nobleman possessed of a sharp mind, steely determination and a streak of cruelty. My favourite character was the fictional troubadour (strictly speaking a trouvere, as he tells us, since he comes from the north of France) Bernard de Sezanne. A highly talented musician and composer, Bernard is vain, sentimental, cowardly (“I only like to wield my sword in bed,” as he puts it), and hopelessly devoted to wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order. He is also charming and funny and adds a welcome note of comedy to the proceedings. For example, here he is describing the love of his life to Alan, “How I loved her! I would have died for her – well, not died, but certainly I would have suffered a great deal of pain for her. Well, not a great deal of pain, some pain. Let’s just say a small amount of discomfort…..”

Robin Hood stories, like King Arthur stories, have a tendency to attract larger-than-life elements, which is all part of their appeal. In Outlaw there is a thriving secret pagan religion led by a formidable warrior priestess practising human sacrifice according to Iron Age ritual, Little John wears a horned helmet for the climactic battle scene, knights wear chain mail head to foot when attending a party in the Queen’s audience hall, and Marie-Anne, the superlatively beautiful heiress to an earldom, is unmarried at eighteen and can travel the country to meet Robin in his outlaw hideouts with a small escort of men-at-arms and no female companion, apparently without fear either of abduction or losing her reputation. The author says in his historical note that there is little evidence of widespread paganism in twelfth-century England, but that he liked to imagine that it existed, “perhaps fancifully”, which is fair enough.

The plot is an entertaining and easy to follow series of set-piece action sequences, rather like an action film. Skirmishes, training in sword-fighting by a Knight Templar, a hall-burning, a marauding wolf-pack, torture scenes, mutilation scenes, a bloodthirsty pagan rite, a rescue from an impregnable castle, a bit of mild spying on the Queen’s private correspondence, a pitched battle and a single combat. The mystery part of the plot is fairly slight, and the identity of the culprit is strongly signalled early on, so the eventual revelation may not come as a surprise if you pick up the clue. I thought the ending seemed rather abrupt, but as this is the first of a planned series, perhaps the ‘end’ is intended as more of a pause between this book and the next one.

A straightforward modern prose style makes Outlaw a fast, easy read, ideal if you’re tired after a hard day at work. Modern expletives are refreshingly absent, and Little John in particular has a colourful line in invented curses (e.g. “God’s holy toenails,” “Christ’s crusty drawers”, etc).

A sketch map at the front of the book shows the terrain and dispositions for the climactic (fictional) pitched battle at the manor of Linden Lea. There’s no large map, so readers unfamiliar with English geography might like to have an atlas to hand to locate the more distant places, like Winchester, in relation to the sites of most of the action around Nottingham. A historical note at the end briefly reviews the evidence for a historical Robin Hood, and explains why the author chose to place his version of the legend in the late twelfth century.

Entertaining, easy-reading, all-action adventure based on the Robin Hood legends.


Passages to the Past said...

I hadn't heard of this one, but now I must check it out! Excellent and thorough review! Thank you!

Annis said...

Great review, Carla! I enjoyed this one too, and it made an interesting contrast to the more literary "Hodd" by Adam Thorpe, a powerful, bleak story which impressed me earlier this year. Review here Thorpe uses the outlaw Much as the centre of his novel.

I'm sure I read somewhere that Angus Donald intends to make this the start of a series.

What is it with Robin Hood? We seem to be in the middle of an RH revival, with Robin Hood taking on a "Dark Robin" persona this time round. I even saw mention that Bernard Cornwell had considered writing an RH story, but that may well be a rumour purely based on speculation and/or hearsay :)

Rick said...

Not especially my sort of thing, but the one thing that sounds gratuitously annoying is the pagan bit. With a priestess, no less. At least if she conducts human sacrifices she can't be too hippie dippie.

I'm curious about his arguments for putting the 'historical Robin Hood' in the late 12th century, not the usual early 13th.

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds great! I especially like the sound of Bernard and his humour. I'm off now to check it out on Amazon - thanks for the tip, Carla!

Carla said...

Amy - you're welcome, and if you read it I'll be interested to hear your thoughts!

Annis - I haven't read Hodd yet, but I thought it sounded as if it would be a distinct counterpoint to Outlaw. I hope to get round to it at some point. I think it says in the author's note that Outlaw is intended as the start of a series; if it isn't there it might be on the website.

My guess is that Robin Hood is a "big name" - an already-famous persona whom readers will certainly have heard of, which has obvious sales appeal. The 'dark' aspect, again I am guessing here, could be partly an assessment of the characteristics that would really be needed by a successful outlaw leader (a sweetness-and-light Robin would probably have lasted about as long as a mayfly), and partly a reaction to film portrayals of Robin like the famous Errol Flynn version.

Rick - I could have done without the pagan bit, but each to his own. Lots of people will love it.
The difference from the usual time period isn't so great - this is set at the beginning of Richard's reign rather than the time when Richard comes back after being captured on his way home from the Crusades which is the usual setting. The next book in the series apparently features Robin & co going on Crusade with Richard.

Alianore - yes, I got rather fond of Bernard :-) If you read it, let me know what you think.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Thank you for adding another book to my TBR pile. I really needed that. *grin*

Though 'Christ's crusty drawers' - well, I'd say it was a crusty loincloth, rather. ;)

Carla said...

Gabriele - I don't think Little John is all that bothered about the historical accuracy of costume in first-century Judaea :-) Some of his other oaths are even more startling than the ones I quoted...

Bernita said...

"(a sweetness-and-light Robin would probably have lasted about as long as a mayfly),"
I'll buy that.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol, I don't think 'drawers' was Medieaval, either, but if it fits with the overall tone of the book ....

I just notice those things because I try to avoid modernimsn in my historical fiction, because I get a better feel for my world as writer if I don't mix ours in all the time. Though I had to edit out 'adrenaline' the other day. ;)The Romans would not have known that word.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Great review Carla - thanks! I am not sure whether I want to read this one or not given my veracity-nerd tendencies! Is the novel good enough for me to be able to get lost in the story and keep them suppressed?

Rick said...

'Dark' also tends to be contemporary fashion.

For time period, I flubbed in saying 'the usual early 13th century' - the received version is end of the 12th, Richard I's reign and absence.* This story is only a decade earlier.

I have read, and this may be the point of the author's note, that some evidence points to a 'historical Robin Hood' in the mid or later 13th century.

So far as I know the Richard/John element of the modern tradition is pretty late (Walter Scott, maybe?). When young Henry VIII dressed up as Robin Hood to 'surprise' Catherine of Aragon, I think the connotation was merely jolly outlaws living free of conventional constraints in a rather timeless past.

* Knowing history does spoil the end of the Errol Flynn film, when Richard banishes John. Much good that does, when John will still inherit the throne!

Annis said...

I'm not sure about Angus Donald's inspiration, but Adam Thorpe took his from an early ballad about RH, called "Robin and the Monk", and there's very little sweetness and light there! I think the chivalrous, insouciant Robin persona began with Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe" and that image was reinforced by the Errol Flynn movie. One reason why RH remains a popular figure is his ability to adapt to whichever era he finds himself in :)

I see that Angus Donald is working on book 2. From his website:
"I’m currently in the middle of the second book in my series on Robin Hood; at the moment, I’m calling it "Holy Warrior", and it will be published in the summer of 2010. The book opens in Yorkshire just after the coronation of King Richard the Lionheart and Robin is building himself an army, a mixed force of archers and cavalry, to take on the Third Crusade to free the Holy Land from the infidel."

Carla said...

Bernita - yes, quite

Gabriele - I think somewhere near the start of the novel it says something like "drawers, called braies", so people who know the medieval term can see that the author knows it too.

Your Romans would have recognised the feeling that we now call an adrenalien rush, but they'd have had a different word for it.

Elizabeth - hard to say, because that depends on the reader! Since most of the characters are figures from the legends, rather than figures from history as such, that might help with going along for the ride, as you would with an action film.

Rick - I'm no expert. As I understand it there are various 'historical Robin Hood' candidates in various records from various periods, and the author suggests that there may well have been numerous outlaws known as 'Robin Hood' or variants of the name, all of whom may have contributed to the legends. I think that's quite likely; something similar may have happened with King Arthur. I have a vague idea that one of the ballads refers to a King Richard and another to a King Edward (but don't quote me on that!), so the Richard/John timing might not have originated with Walter Scott, though he may well have popularised it and made it the received version. Agreed that Henry VIII was probably just dressing up as a romantic figure from a timeless Merrie England, as mythical as the Faerie Queen.

Annis - yes, the original ballads are very much darker than the Errol Flynn version! Though I don't really know enough about them in detail to trace themes. You may well be right that the charming Robin originated with Walter Scott. You're right that Robin Hood can adapt to any era, like the King Arthur stories in that respect. That's the great advantage of not being too closely tied to documented history - far greater freedom to be reinvented for new audiences :-)

Rick said...

The bit I've read on the 'historical Robin Hood' goes much the same. I seem to recall that the earliest recorded use is later 13th century, but of course that only sets a latest point of origin.

It is very easy to imagine that once one outlaw made a name for himself - so to speak - as Robin Hood, that others might adopt it as nom de plume.

A little harder for kings, who can't really go around masked. :-)

advantage of not being too closely tied to documented history - far greater freedom to be reinvented for new audiences :-)

Essentially why we both put stories in invented pasts that look much like the real thing, but not pinned down by the mass of particulars.

Carla said...

Rick - The author mentions a lazy priest in Piers Plowman who knows the ballads of Robin Hood better than his prayers. (Incidentally, this is exactly analogous to Alcuin fulminating in the 8th century, "What has Ingeld got to do with Christ?" when berating monks who listened to heroic stories in the refectory rather than scripture. Some things never change). Piers Plowman dates to the 1370s, so the Robin Hood legends and the stories were well established by then. Whether they originated 50 years earlier, 100 years earlier or 500 years earlier is anyone's guess!

It is indeed very easy to imagine outlaws adopting the name Robin Hood, for all sorts of reasons. It may also have become a sort of synonym for outlaw in the language, in the same sort of way as brand names like Hoover and Biro have come to mean vacuum cleaner and ballpoint pen.