The seventh book in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw chronicles is out today. Well, you know how I feel about the Outlaw books, don’t you? Just in case anyone’s still unaware of them, these books represent a whole new and very realistic treatment of Robin Hood, seen through the eyes of the minstrel (and so much more) Alan Dale.
Some series of historical fiction find a winning formula and stick to it. I would say, in fact, that most of those series do that. An author finds the sweet spot where his readers are happiest and continues to write in it. Some manage to continue with great success, though others start to feel stale some time around book five or six, I find. Other authors – rarer, braver ones – allow their series to grow and change like a living thing, which runs the risk of annoying those readers who enjoy that sweet spot, but allows the author to explore more and the reader to experience more. They do not become stale.
The Outlaw chronicles have grown and changed throughout Angus’ career as a novelist, and have done so with great success. In fairness, they would have to do, since they have covered two and a half decades of Alan’s life. He has changed from a young scamp to a mature, responsible knight in his time, and that journey from boy to man has been gradually reflected throughout the series, giving them a sense of growth and allowing the reader to identify with, and truly believe in, the character.
That being said, even with the general progression of time in the series, book seven has moved on more than usual, and feels slightly different – though far from in a bad way. Indeed, despite the ongoing plot threads I suspect a new reader could pick up book seven and not be lost by the missing of the previous books. A decade has passed since the siege of Chateau Gaillard and the events related in The Iron Castle, and that’s some gap to bridge. Needless to say it is bridged in style.
Angus has never shied away from handling the great events of the 12th and 13th centuries in his books, from the Third Crusade, the rescue of the Lionheart from Germany, the Holy Grail, the Cathar Heresy, right to the siege of Gaillard. All these events have been inextricably entwined with the characters in his books, both Robin and Alan as well as the supporting cast. And book 7 takes on one of the most important events in British history – the signing of the Magna Carta. Propitious timing, given that only a few days ago that event celebrated its 800th anniversary.
A quick note on the plot and events within (avoiding spoilers at all costs): This tale takes us on from Robin and Alan’s previous position as landowners of England suffering the whims and oppression of the tyrant King John. The last two books or so have languished solidly within that nightmare situation. Well, with book 7 that tense, dangerous world is coming to a head. John is determined to reclaim his lost lands in France, but he is unpopular and poor as kings go. Wars cost money and need men. To get the men he needs he will have to hire mercenaries and send cash to his friendly rulers across the sea. And that means more money. And where does that money come from? Clearly from men like Robin and Alan. England is being squeezed until every last penny pops out, and that is crippling the people and fomenting unrest among the nobles. Though they will fight in France to reclaim his territory, John’s nobles are beginning to think the unthinkable: of the death of a tyrant. And you can be sure that Alan is expected to play a part…
King’s Assassin masterfully weaves together three or four major plot threads, with each one having a bearing on the others, each having an immediate connection to the current tale while also recalling events in the previous books. There is war. There are daring escapes. There is betrayal – LOTS of betrayal. There are assassinations and sieges, desperate flights and heroic duels. But there is also a grounding in the real world. None of this is Errol Flynn leaping onto candelabra and laughing as he pinches the sheriff’s hat. It is all a tale that could so easily have happened as it is written.
I was interested to see the return of a few old characters I had all but forgotten, and impressed and surprised at one particular event that was very brave of Angus to handle, I have to say. Enough said about that. No spoilers is my policy. But you’ll know what I mean when you get to it. The book is extremely well written, as you would expect, the prose poetic and carrying a feel of the language and idiom of the era, and is up there at the very top of the series, and indeed of the whole genre. King’s Man has always been my favourite of Angus’ books, but King’s Assassin is truly every bit as good.
There is a palpable feeling of closure about this book, which at once makes me sad and makes me want to shake Angus’ hand. There can be no doubt that the Outlaw Chronicles are coming to an end soon. Not with this book, but with one or two perhaps left to go. While that means that I am facing the possibility of no more Robin and Alan in a few years time, it does mean that Angus is determined not to drag out the series to its detriment and can instead take it out with a bang, which is the perfect thing to do. And, of course, it means we might then be treated to a new hero from one of my favourite Hist-Fic writers.
Go and find King’s Assassin in your favourite store. Read it. You won’t be disappointed. It is one of those really hard to put down books.
Bravo again Angus