04 April, 2014

The Lion Rampant, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-733790-3. 454 pages

Set in southern Scotland and Spain in 1314, The Lion Rampant is the third in Robert Low’s trilogy about the Wars of Independence, and covers the build-up to the Battle of Bannockburn and the battle itself. The main characters, Sir Hal Sientcler of Herdmanston and his household, are fictional. ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick, loyal henchman of Robert Bruce, is also fictional, although the fictional character is now starting to step into the role of the historical Roger Kirkpatrick.  Isabel MacDuff of Fife, formerly the Countess of Buchan, is based on a historical figure, although many details of her life and her eventual fate are not known. Other historical figures appear as important secondary characters, including Robert Bruce and his brother Edward, various Scots lords including Sir James Douglas (‘The Black Douglas’, or ‘The Good Sir James’, depending whether he was on your side), Edward II of England and various other English lords. 

In early spring 1314, Hal of Herdmanston has been held prisoner by the English garrison of Roxburgh Castle for seven years since his capture at the end of the previous novel, The Lion At Bay. His beloved Isabel MacDuff has been imprisoned for much the same time, in even harsher conditions (in a cage hung from the walls of Berwick Castle). During Hal’s imprisonment, Robert Bruce has been steadily fighting a guerilla war against his Scottish enemies and rivals, chiefly the Comyn family, and the English garrisons in Scotland. Now, after seven hard years, the Comyns are defeated and exiled, and the English presence in Scotland is largely confined to the garrisons of three great fortresses, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Stirling. When Roxburgh falls to a daring assault led by James Douglas, Hal of Herdmanston is freed. Returning to Robert Bruce to seek help in rescuing Isabel, he finds Bruce facing the prospect of a large-scale invasion of Scotland. Edward II of England is determined to crush Robert Bruce and independent Scotland once and for all. Unless Robert Bruce can source enough weapons to arm his soldiers by midsummer, he will have no chance against the English army – and there are only a few months left. And so Hal and ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick are despatched on a desperate mission to a Templar stronghold in Spain. Secrecy and speed are of the essence, for the fate of Scotland hangs on their success – but already there is the stink of treachery in the air...

The Lion Rampant concludes Robert Low’s trilogy about the Wars of Independence, which began with The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier) and continued with The Lion At Bay (reviewed here earlier). As well as bringing the war to its climax at Bannockburn, it also resolves the stories of the main characters, including Hal of Herdmanston, Isabel MacDuff and Dog Boy.

Like its predecessors, The Lion Rampant is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of violent action. The fight scenes are gory, brutal and gruesomely convincing. Fittingly for a book published shortly before the 700th anniversary, the Battle of Bannockburn dominates the novel. All the famous set-piece scenes are there, from Robert Bruce’s duel with de Bohun to the decisive charge of the camp-followers.  The author has neatly contrived to place one of his main characters in each of the key components of the battle, so it is told from all sides, and stirring stuff it is. If you have ever tried to imagine what it might have been like to stand in a schiltrom of spearmen facing a charge of armoured knights; or to be one of those knights charging a forest of steel pikes; or a Welsh mercenary archer in Edward’s army, neither fully trusting in nor trusted by the English leaders; or a sensible veteran like the down-to-earth Yorkshire knight Marmaduke Thweng, watching with gloomy resignation as the squabbling nobles in high command precipitate disaster – this novel is for you.

The Templar sub-plot and the mystery of the traitor add an exotic diversion (best taken, as the author says about all things to do with the Templars in Scotland, “with a huge saline pinch”), and gives Hal and Roger something exciting to do while the rival armies are converging on Bannockburn. There is more of a nationalistic atmosphere to this novel than the previous two, partly because the Scottish civil war has largely been won by the Bruce faction (and partly, perhaps, reflecting the iconic status of Bannockburn in modern popular culture). However, the sense of the dense political background is retained. There are Scots lords from the defeated Comyn faction fighting with Edward II, the ‘English’ army contains considerable numbers of archers from Wales and mercenary soldiers from Hainault, and the simmering unrest among the English nobles – not all of which is due solely to inflated egos – is an ever-present menace.  Edward II is seen through the clear eyes of Marmaduke Thweng, who has sympathy for him and admires his courage, but who also has no illusions about Edward’s effectiveness either as king or war leader.

Characterisation is vivid and complex, with even minor characters swiftly sketched in as distinct individuals with their own fears and ambitions. Relationships can be equally complex and contradictory. Hal does not trust ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick (with good reason), yet the two are bound together by obligation and revenge, in “a tangle of sin and redemption that even God would have trouble unravelling”. Dog Boy has discovered his identity, Aleysandir of Douglas, and is now a warrior in his prime, "as daring as the Black Sir James, but better looking", as he says to more than one vanquished enemy. Yet the cruelty and the waste of war are taking a toll on him, and he wants nothing more than to settle to family life with Bet’s Meggy and be done with killing and destruction. Their love is a bright thread of joy running through the darkness of war, a counterpart to the bittersweet love affair between Hal and Isabel MacDuff.

An Author’s Note and a detailed character list at the back of the book outlines the underlying history, identifies the purely fictional characters, and acknowledges some of the liberties taken with historical figures.  For example, Isabel MacDuff’s fate is unknown, but the limited information suggests that it probably was not as depicted in the novel.  A sketch map at the front gives approximate locations for some of the places mentioned. I would have liked a more detailed plan of the battlefield at Bannockburn itself as imagined in the novel.  There is no glossary of Scots words and phrases, perhaps because the Scots dialect seems less pronounced in this novel than in the first one.

Gripping, violent action-adventure bringing this trilogy of the Wars of Independence to a rousing conclusion with the Battle of Bannockburn.


Constance Brewer said...

It would be worth the read for the descriptions of battle alone I think. Thanks for the review. :)

Carla said...

Yes, it is. I think the Battle of Bannockburn is the best part of the book.

Kathryn Warner said...

How did I miss this review?! :o Thanks for the tip, Carla - really have to get my hands on this one and its predecessors :-)

Meghan said...

Great review! This makes me want to read more about the Battle of Bannockburn.

Carla said...

Kathryn - I would definitely recommend them if you like action-adventure. The battle and fight scenes are terrific. You'll be pleased to see that although Edward II is a minor character, his portrayal seems reasonably balanced.

Meghan - thanks! I am glad you liked it. Definitely recommended if you're interested in the battle of Bannockburn (in this, its 700th anniversary year).