Angus Donald

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.