Robyn Young – Scotland 2: England 0
It seems to have been a few weeks now since I posted a book review. Ill health loomed for three weeks and brought me low, but eventually I clambered out of the other side and into the world of Robert the Bruce.
Robyn young, already well known in the Medieval fiction world for her Brethren trilogy about the Knights Templar, has more recently turned her talents to telling the tale of the English/Scottish wars of the 13th/14th centuries. This is a review not only of the new (second) book in the series – of which I recently received an advance proof – but also the first, which I also recently finished.
Insurrection immediately took me by surprise. All I really knew of it was that it was a story of Robert Bruce. Now like most of you (I suspect) my knowledge of this great historic figure is fairly limited to the fact that he was King of Scotland, that he won at Bannockburn in 1314, and some guff about sitting in a cave and watching a spider spin a web – oh and Braveheart. Actually, that’s not quite true. Being a Yorkshireman, I also knew that Bruce was actually of the DeBrus family that came from Guisborough near my home and were originally about as Scottish as Kaiser Wilhelm II. But you get my point. My knowledge was sketchy and mostly revolved around his kingship.
And so it intrigued me to discover that Insurrection is a story that begins with Robert as a teenager, freshly returned from fosterage in Ireland to his family’s lands in Scotland. In fact, the story begins more with a little background to Edward I of England and the events leading to the death of King Alexander of Scotland. But I’m confusing the issue there.
Insurrection tells the story of Robert from his youth in a safe, stable Scotland, through the period of disaster following the death of Alexander, and through the wars and feuds with the Comyn and Balliol families that lead to Robert siding with the hated English during the first wave of troubles.
I won’t tell the story beyond that. If you want spoilers, read the book. What I will do is tell you why you should do that.
As with Robyn’s Brethren trilogy, she has not simply told the history, but interwoven a creative new story within the web of the historical fact, turning this from a straight history book to a fresh and much more personal novel.
Among the threads of Edward and Robert’s story are echoes of the Arthurian legends which, while not central to the tale, are important enough to the characters to inform their actions. This additional facet not only helps to deepen the story and flesh out the characters, but also helps to fill in some of the historical gaps in the reasons for their actions.
To me, the greatest strength of the novel is the fairness levelled at the various sides. There is a great tendency when talking of William Wallace, Robert Bruce and Edward – the Hammer of the Scots – to paint the Scots as heroic, hard-done-by highlanders in kilts and woad (thank you Mel Gibson) and the English as stony-faced robots seeking only pleasure in the destruction of the Scottish way of life. Not so Robyn’s treatment.
Robyn has recognised immediately that the nobles on both sides of this war were almost all of Norman descent and were far more similar than they were different. The Scottish lords are fractious and argumentative, half of them supporting the English over their own people, many of them hating each other more than the English. Robert Bruce is, of course, no exception. In fact there are times when the reader despairs over Robert’s actions – a sign that the character has a truly real feel. There are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys in the story.
Insurrection is not a short book – be prepared for a sizeable read but, given that, the story races by at such pace that it seems much shorter. An exciting and involving story, very well written, the book should find a place on your shelves. Read it and finally push the Hollywood glam of Braveheart out of your mind.
And so to the second book. Really, after finishing the first, you will almost certainly want to wade straight into Renegade. Ha! You’ll have to wait. Not for long, though. Renegade is released on Thursday (30th August). I myself was lucky enough to bag a proof copy.
Renegade surprised me as much as the first book, and I’ll explain why in a minute.
This story picks up where Insurrection left off, with the Bruce having made the decision that the crown of Scotland will be his. While Insurrection told the tale of Bruce’s youth and formative years and the events that made him who he is, in Renegade he is now a grown man. This book moves the story on and tells the tale of how that young man moves from self-imposed exile to build a stairway to the greatest power in Scotland.
Two things unsettled me to begin with. Firstly is knowing that the story begins with the Bruce in Ireland in a self-imposed exile, having given up the guardianship of Scotland. Seemed like a backward step, whatever the motive, and took the action somewhere I wasn’t sure about. Secondly, the blurb on the back cover states that Bruce will, in this book, be forced to ally with his enemy (likely meaning King Edward of England.) This irritated, given how much you really don’t want that to happen, and given the fact that this had also already happened once in the first book.
I needn’t have worried. The section in Ireland is just as fascinating as the sections in Scotland and England and proceeds at good pace. And the submitting to Edward? Well it jarred to begin with, but soon settled into seeming perfectly appropriate and normal. In fact, given Robert’s history with the English nobles from the first book, it was almost like returning home.
There seems to be less attention paid in this book to the Arthurian overtones or the pagan/Celtic shadows on the fringes of society, though I think this is because they have less influence on this particular part of the story (beyond the beginning in Ireland) and there are hints that they will return with great importance in the third book when it comes.
Essentially, what I saw as potential failings in the book before I really launched into it were actually nothing of the sort and, in fact, Robyn has turned the irksome facts provided by history into engaging and fascinating parts of the story.
One thing that I did notice that differed from the first novel was the pace. Insurrection ran at a steady and engrossing pace from start to finish. Renegade, I would say, starts a little slower, but with every quarter of the book the pace increased by a notch, gradually building to a crescendo. I found that I couldn’t put the book down after a while and read the last third of it in one sitting, ignoring almost everything else in life until I finished it.
I also noted something that commends the book particularly for me: the tragic story of the feud between the Bruces and the Comyns which almost tears the nation apart and which, had it been absent, could have seen a peaceful, victorious and united Scotland so early. This is, to me, as good a tragic tale as the writings of Guy Gavriel Kay and it is only the third time in all my reading when I have had cause to compare a writer with Kay (who remains my favourite author of all time.) For me to compare to GGK is one of the highest recommendations I can give.
Read Insurrection and Renegade both. Together they form a tremendous tale of heartbreak, loss, struggle, intrigue, subterfuge, betrayal, war, murder, love, excitement, heroism and so much more.
Scotland the Brave!