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Robyn Young – Scotland 2: England 0

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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

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.

RENEGADE

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.

So…

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!

Written by SJAT

August 25, 2012 at 9:48 am

Interesting People

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Today I have little to report, so I have instead decided to name 10 people in history that fascinate me. The interesting thing is that none of these people are figures that I knew all about because they were famous, but rather are people that I’ve found out about accidentally and become fascinated as a result.

Philip II of Macedon.

You see everyone knows about Alexander the Great, but fewer know much about his father. And yet, in reading a book a long time ago on Alexander, I came to the conclusion that I prefer his father and find him much more interesting. Philip was a third son of the King of Macedon and spent his entire youth in captivity in Greece. Yet at 22, he returned home, turned the almost collapsed heap that was Macedon once more into a powerful Kingdom, fought back the enemies that threatened it, reorganised the army such that it became the most powerful military machine in the world at that time, and conquered the whole of Greece. If he had not been assassinated by a bodyguard, what could he have achieved. Alexander may be more famous, but without Philip’s groundwork, he’d never have achieved what he did.

William Plunkett

In the belief that the story is true, Plunkett was a highwayman in the early 18th century (see him played by Robert Carlyle in the movie .Plunkett & MacLeane’. The thing about him that fascinates me though, is that he survived, emigrated to America and, according to at least one account, ended up as a colonel fighting for independence against England in 1776. That’s quite a fascinating end for a poor English criminal, eh?

Guzman the Good

Alonso de Guzman. First ever heard of him when I visited Tarifa in Spain many years ago. He is remembered there as a great hero in the mould of El Cid. Guzman was charged by the King with defending Tarifa castle against the moors. His son was held captive by the King’s brother who sided with the Moors and the Prince threatened to kill Guzman’s son unless he surrendered the castle. Guzman said that he would not allow himself to betray his country and that if the Prince killed the boy, he would just damn himself and heap honour on both of them. He even threw his own knife down to them to do it with because it was an untarnished Christian blade. This is a man who put honour above everything. Such people are rare.

Harald Hardrada

Heard of him? Probably not. He was a viking in the 11th century. However (and I think I’ve talked about him before) he lived the most amazing life before dying in battle only 30 miles from where I sit. Though you probably think of vikings as hairy barbarians who lived in the icy north, Harald fought all across eastern europe, making a name for himself, served as an officer in the Varangian bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, was imprisoned and escaped, fled to Russia where he married a Russian/Swedish princess, became King Harald III of Norway, conquered Denmark for a time, founded the city of Oslo, and invaded England, dying at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 where he was defeated by Harold II of England, who then had to rush south to fight the battle of Hastings against William the Bastard less than 3 weeks later. Had the battle gone the other way, we would have grown as a Scandinavian country rather than a middle European one. Harald is widely regarded as the last great Viking and with him, the Viking age passes.

Robert de Brus

The one I’m talking about isn’t the famous Bruce who was King of Scotland and featured in Braveheart, but his dad. The de Brus (or Bruce) family are good Yorkshire folk from near me. They founded the priory at Guisborough and only became involved in Scotland when one of them was made Lord of Annandale. The 6th Lord (the one I’m talking of) fought in the Holy Land during the 9th Crusade, helped the English King Edward I crush Wales, and finally took part in the first war of Scottish Independence, on the side of the English! Yes, the father of the man who became King Robert the Bruce and the greatest symbol of Scottish independence, fought against Saracens, Welshmen and Scots all on behalf of the English, and was from a Norman-French family who settled in northern England.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Agricola is a well-known name among Roman historians, though many of you will never have heard of him. He was a general under the Emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. He was the uncle of the great writer Tacitus, who wrote his biography. Agricola was governor of Britain for a time, is responsible for some of the great roads of the province, built the Stanegate line, the precursor for Hadrian’s Wall, conquered the rebellious north, actually beat the Scots and pacified Scotland (though it was subsequently abandoned) and may indeed have even briefly invaded Ireland. His success and reputation were so great that the Emperor eventually had him recalled and shuffled into retirement, Tacitus suggests because his achievements were outshining the Emperor’s. And yet despite a life of military campaigns, involvment with the Boudiccan revolt, the civil war in Rome in 69, and irritating an Emperor not known for his patience, he died peacefully on his estate in the end.

John Lilburne

Freeborn John. He’s actually very important and deserves to be more famous than he is. I’d never heard of him until wifey and I went to see a ‘folk opera’ called Freeborn John in 2008, starring New Model Army, the Levellers, Maddy Prior and Rev Hammer. Since then I have read much of him, and seen him in ‘The Devil’s Whore’ on BBC TV. Lilburne was a radical during the English Civil War. Even back in the 17th century, John espoused the ‘freeborn rights’ of man. He was repeatedly jailed, punished and tried for illegal pamphleting and causing disturbances. He fought for Parliament in the civil war, but resigned his commission in 1645 because he claimed the army was trying to curb his free rights. He may be considered a member of the ‘Levellers’ movement, though he claimed not.  He drafted three constitutions that were never ratified but have been used as the basis for many great documents since. Finally, he was exiled to the Netherlands, though he returned eventually and was subsequently imprisoned yet again. Finally, his health declined in prison and he died while visiting his pregnant wife. He is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of the rights of man.

Colonel Thomas Blood

You may know that name, but probably not. I had heard of him. Blood is infamous in England as the Irishman who, in the late 17th century, attempted to steal the crown jewels of England. He had been a royalist during the civil war, but had switched sides halfway through to support Cromwell. After the royal restoration, he attempted to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde in Ireland and escaped to the Netherlands when his co-conspirators were caught and executed. He returned as a wanted man and attempted to kill the Duke this time, being foiled once again. Then, in 1671, he, in disguise, ingratiated himself with the keeper of the Tower of London’s crown jewels and as a result, managed to steal them, hammering a crown flat and sawing a sceptre in half for transport! However, he was capture while leaving the castle and the crown jewels retained. Blood was taken before the King where, and this is where he becomes a legend in my eyes, the colonel was cheeky and so engaging that the King discovered he liked the man, pardoned him and gave him land! A familiar figure at court afterwards, he continued to be the same audatious man until he eventually fell ill and passed away a free man, never having served punishment for treason, kidnapping or attempted murder.

Alcibiades

Greek statesman from the 5th century BC. Alcibiades is another of those rogues and scoundrels that I like. He was an Athenian that advocated war against Sparta. However, after he was accused of sacrilege and brought to trial in Athens, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he advocated war against Athens and became a general. However, he pissed off important people in Sparta and ended up having to run away again, this time to Persia, enemy of all the Greek states. Here, he became a military advisor to Persia until Athens cleared his name and invited him back (not sure why!) He served once again as an Athenian general before being exiled. He was once more on his way to seek refuge with Persia when he died, possibly at the hands of Spartans. Alcibiades is the ancient Greek pinball.

Charles Piazzi Smyth

My final choice is local for me. He is buried in a churchyard in a village on the edge of Ripon, my hometown. Smyth is an interesting 19th century man. Born in Naples, he became Astronomer Royal of Scotland, designed a tent with an attached groundsheet, wrote a book about his travels to Tenerife, travelled to Egypt and became a ‘pyramidologist’ and is buried beneath a small pyramid with a cross on top.

I bet you’ve all got favourite interesting people too eh?

Go on… who are they?