The Outlaw Chronicles: Book I
Angus Donald’s name crops up a lot in the historical fiction forums over at Goodreads and so I was rather chuffed to stumble across a copy of his debut novel in my local second-hand bookshop. As you know, I find it hard to resist novels about Robin Hood and I was interested to see how Outlaw would tackle this character, whom I’ve recently come across in two very different fictional forms: romantic, noble and quietly traumatised in Lady of the Forest, and psychotic madman with a Messiah complex in the most peculiar Hodd. It’s proven to be a good read, full of colour and historical flair.
Outlaw focuses on the Robin Hood myth from the perspective of Alan, a fatherless young thief who steals in order to support himself and his mother, the widow Dale. However, he steals one pie too many and, after escaping by the skin of his teeth from the soldiers of Sir Ralph Murdac (the Sheriff), Alan flees home to his frantic mother, who appeals for help to the one man who can stand up to the authorities. This is Robert Odo, called Robin by those who follow him: a renegade nobleman who, despite his youth, has transformed the villages and hamlets of Sherwood into a kind of personal affinity. Taken under his wing as cupbearer, Alan learns to respect, admire and fear his new master, whose privileged upbringing wars with a dark, ruthless streak.
As he trains in the exercise of arms, develops his natural gift for music and learns to behave with the manners expected of a young squire, Alan is conscious of being part of something bigger: much bigger. Robin’s devoted followers can muster a small army and, in these dark times with King Henry abroad, Queen Eleanor in prison, and their eldest son Richard chafing at his father’s authority in Aquitaine, such power is no small thing in England. As Murdac and his fellow Norman barons seek to fill their pockets in the kingless kingdom, Robin and his men stand to protect the Saxon commoners crushed and oppressed by this new elite – and, moreover, to preserve the realm for when the king returns.
All the usual elements are present and correct in Donald’s story, but he marshals them in a fresh and very effective way. He sets his story at a slightly earlier period than usual, at the tail end of Henry II’s reign rather than already under Richard I, presumably to allow for the Crusades to play a role later in the series. This also means that his Robin is rather different from usual: he’s still in his early twenties and has never been on Crusade, and Donald asks us to believe that he has built up his position through a mixture of opportunism, charisma and ruthlessness. I was very nearly convinced by this, but not entirely: perhaps more of Robin’s backstory will become clear in the later books, which will throw more light on it.
What is clear is that a traumatic childhood, precocious intelligence and a rather flexible attitude to morality have given Robin the impetus to strike out on his own, away from the shadow of his father and his eldest brother. Donald suggests an element of psychological instability: this Robin can be clubbable and merry and even romantic, when he’s with his beloved Marie-Anne (the Countess of Locksley); but it can take very little to push him over the edge into calculating, almost psychopathic acts of violence. Disillusioned with the Church, he finds dark satisfaction in taking part in the rites of his pagan followers, assuming the role of Herne the Hunter and using the ancient rituals as another way to draw the people to him. (I thought that was a very successful scene, although it did give me flashbacks to the horned-god scenes in The Fall of the Kings.) His ruthlessness is evident right from the beginning:
As I looked up at the church door, I noticed something amiss. A dark lump had been affixed above the lintel … It was the severed head of a young wolf, eyes still open and glittering madly in the torchlight … I felt a sense of almost unbearable excitement, a euphoria soaring up through my lungs and into my head. He had dared to desecrate the church with the body of an animal, to make it, for one night, his own. He dared to risk his immortal soul with a pagan symbol in the sacred precincts of our Mother Church. This was a fearless man indeed.
Alongside the conception of the ‘merry men’ as a well-drilled and regulated army, rather than a band of lovable rascals, this goes to make a very engaging take on the story and on our so-called hero. Donald is extremely good at battle scenes, particularly in the extended sequence towards the end of the book where there is a real effort to present an authentic late-medieval engagement in all its stages (there was even a mangonel: not exactly a trebuchet, to my disappointment, but worth a Brownie point). It felt gritty and cinematic: just the kind of battle-writing I enjoy, and the writing overall was vivid and rich.
Where the book is slightly less successful is in the leaps of faith it asks us to make. I’ve already mentioned that I wasn’t quite convinced by the youthful Robin drawing all these hardened older men to his cause. I also wasn’t sure that Eleanor of Aquitaine would really have let one of her ladies sneak off for unaccompanied rendezvouses with a notorious outlaw. And I found the closing chapters rather hurried, as everything was tidied into place a little too conveniently. With the luxuriantly-described battle at an end, it felt as though Donald had suddenly realised that he had to scrabble all the loose ends together for a conventional Robin-Hood finale (am I risking spoilers to mention weddings, King Richard, the comeuppance – but not death – of the Sheriff, etc.?). In a way, knowing there are more books to come, I would have been quite happy not to have the traditional ending and to see the pardon, wedding and rehabilitation dealt with at greater length in the next book.
But these are minor quibbles. I found this thoroughly enjoyable – which was a relief, because I bought the sequel, Holy Warrior, at the same time – and of the various Robin Hood novels I’ve read, I found it the most satisfying. It’ll be interesting to see where Donald takes it from now on: judging from the sequel’s title, it’s pretty safe to say we’re off on Crusade (and I’m looking forward to it, because I’ve been keen to get back to the Holy Land ever since Lionheart). However, I’m intrigued to see whether Robin is going to keep any of his qualities, or whether the outlaw days are truly done and dusted, and our merry men are going to smoothly transform themselves into warriors of God, and never think of Sherwood more.