30 December, 2012

The Lion At Bay, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-00-733789-7. 389 pages

Set in Scotland, northern England and London in 1304-1307, The Lion At Bay is the second in Robert Low’s series about the Scottish Wars of Independence, following The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier). Robert Bruce, Isabel MacDuff Countess of Buchan, William Wallace and Edward I of England are important characters, and other historical figures including the future Edward II of England, ‘Red John’ Comyn of Badenoch and James Douglas also feature. The main characters, Sir Henry (Hal) Sientcler of Herdmanston, the members of his household, and Bruce’s henchman, spy and fixer Roger Kirkpatrick*, are fictional.

William Wallace is back in Scotland and resuming his fight against Edward I. Robert Bruce, whose secret ambition is to gain the Scottish throne for himself, has temporarily submitted to Edward I to further his feud with his arch-rivals, the Comyn family. Hal of Herdmanston is in the Bruce retinue, sick at heart for the loss of his home and his love Isabel MacDuff, who has reluctantly returned to her husband the Earl of Buchan. Murder, treachery and betrayal abound, as various factions search for the Black Rood of Scotland, stolen from Edward’s treasury in London. And when the Bruce-Comyn feud erupts into violence, Scotland is plunged yet again into war. 

Like its predecessor, The Lion At Bay is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of violent action, political scheming and a mystery sub-plot. Although the struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence has often been portrayed in later ages as a nationalistic fight between Scotland and England, at the time it was at least as much a Scottish civil war between powerful noble factions, chiefly the Bruce family and the Comyn family. This political chaos, with the Bruce-Comyn feud as apparently the only fixed point, provides a turbulent backdrop to the novel. Only one major battle features in this instalment, the battle of Methven (a disaster for Robert Bruce), but there is no shortage of other violent action, ranging from a knightly joust a l’outrance to a street brawl in a slaughterhouse, from siege to assassination and murder. The mystery sub-plot, a quest to recover the Black Rood of Scotland – necessary for the proper coronation of a King of Scots – and its fictional reliquary set with twelve magnificent rubies, forms a unifying thread to hold the narrative together. 

Robert Bruce is no idealised hero in this portrayal. He is harsh, ruthless, deceitful and capable of treachery and murder – occasionally with his own hand, more often via the enigmatic Kirkpatrick. Hal of Herdmanston, a minor Lothian lord who became a Bruce supporter almost by accident (recounted in The Lion Wakes) is ambivalent towards Bruce, repelled by some of his actions but fighting for him anyway.  If I have any quibble with this portrayal, it is that I am not entirely clear why men like Hal were willing to fight and suffer for Bruce, especially in the days after the disastrous battle of Methven when Bruce must have looked like a lost cause. Perhaps because Bruce was the last man standing; perhaps because Edward I (nicknamed in the novel ‘The Covetous King’) had earned himself the undying hatred of a lot of Scots by then; perhaps because by this stage many were concerned less with Bruce personally and more with the abstract ideals of independence and a contract between people and king. The stirring words of the Declaration of Arbroath make an appearance more than once in The Lion At Bay. 

Many of the characters introduced in The Lion Wakes reappear in The Lion At Bay, older now and many growing weary of war. William Wallace has dwindled to an outlaw leader, ‘a monstrous frightener of bairns’, as he wryly muses to himself. Hal and Isabel are older, their love undiminished but thwarted by circumstances. Their love affair has a terrible poignancy amidst the sweetness, especially for a reader who knows Isabel’s eventual fate.  Even the indestructible Kirkpatrick is not immune from age and injury. Conversely, Dog Boy, who was a child in The Lion Wakes, has now grown into an energetic and able young man and become a key member of Hal’s retinue (and I was right about his parentage, which is confirmed in the character list).

The writing is vivid, with a vein of black humour and a scattering of Scots words and phrases to set the scene. Readers who find the Scots words problematic may like to bookmark the glossary at the back of the book where many of them are explained. A list of characters identifies those who are fictional and those who are historical figures, and a short Author’s Note outlines some of the underlying history and the fictional additions and alterations.

Gripping, violent adventure full of action and intrigue, set against the turbulence of the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century.

*Roger Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, he of the famous ‘Mak’ siccar’ line, is a historical figure. The Roger Kirkpatrick in Robert Low’s series is a fictional kinsman and namesake of the historical figure.


Meghan said...

This sounds like a really interesting series. I don't know a lot about this time period (and I'll just assume Braveheart does NOT count) so it sounds like a great way to introduce myself to this part of history!

Carla said...

Meghan - I like this series a lot. Some people find the Scots dialect difficult, though, so you might like to give the first book a try to see how you get on with that. The glossary is useful if you aren't familiar with Scots phrases, so it's definitely worth bookmarking it and referring to it.

My introduction to this period of history was a children's history book about Robert Bruce (with the spider story), followed by Nigel Tranter's Bruce Trilogy, which I can also recommend.

Braveheart is, ahem, not to be relied on for historical accuracy. The Guardian rated it C- for entertainment and Fail for history.

Rick said...

LOL about Braveheart!

Oddly, though (but as I think I've mentioned before), the most Mel Gibson-esque plot element of all, Wallace's personal revenge motive, goes back to the early ballad tradition.

Carla said...

And that plot element might be fine for historical accuracy; as far as I know, although there's no definite evidence for it, there's also no definite evidence against, and imagining events to fill in gaps in the records is what historical fiction is about. Blind Harry may have made it up himself for effect, or he may have been drawing on material that has since been lost. The Wars of Independence were pretty brutal, and unrecorded atrocities are not implausible. Stuff that couldn't have happened (like an affaire with Isabella three years before she even came to England) is a different matter.

Actually I'd probably rate the film higher than C- for entertainment; it's not bad at all if treated as a fantasy taking place in a parallel universe that happens to share a few names with 13th/14th-C Scotland. It also gave Bernard Cornwell the opportunity for some good jokes in his Hundred Years' War novels :-)

Rick said...

Do I gather that Cornwell takes a few smacks at Braveheart?

Sounds fun! What book(s)?

Carla said...

In a minor way, in passing, and it made me laugh, at any rate. It's in one of the first three Grail Quest novels set in the Hundred Years War - titles are Harlequin (The Archer's Tale in the US), Vagabond and Heretic. I think the Braveheart joke is in the second book, Vagabond.

Kathryn Warner said...

This sounds great! I really must read it.

Carla said...

Hope you enjoy it, Kathryn! Best to start with the first one, The Lion Wakes. (Piers Gaveston and the future Edward II get fleeting but generally sympathetic portrayals, BTW. I expect Edward II will have more of a role in the next book).

Gabriele Campbell said...

You want my TBR-pile to match the Tower of Pisa, right? :-)

Carla said...

Gabriele - does it need any help from me? :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, you certainly don't make things any better with those reviews. ;-)

At least the Pargeter series you talk about on Historical Fiction Online is already on that pile, and books with a strong mystery plot don't interest me, so some of them I won't pick up.

Carla said...

Gabriele - if you read this series, I'll be interested in your thoughts. There's a mystery element, but it's not central in the way it is in historical mysteries/crime fiction.