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Posts Tagged ‘Lincoln

The Death of Robin Hood

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Death-of-Robin-Hood

If ever there was a spoiler in the title, eh? But come on, we’ve been expecting this book for a while. Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw Chronicles have run to 8 books, which is pretty good for any series to maintain freshness and individuality, but we could see by book 6 that the characters were beginning to age and to look towards the end. And book 7 pretty much told us there was only one more tale to tell. And yet we’ve all hungered for this last outing for a year.

Donald’s series has gone from strength to strength over the greater part of a decade. The first book was one of the most outstanding debuts ever written in the genre and, though the second was, to my mind, the weakest of the series, that was still a gripping book. But I had maintained throughout that my favourite in the series was King’s Man – the third. Until now.

I know from personal experience how hard it can be to finish a series. Managing to engineer a plot that effectively ties up each and every loose end to a satisfactory level is nightmarish work. It is only when one tries that one realises just how much a series has exploded outwards over its course and just how much there is to resolve. And mine was only a four book series. Donald must have been head-scratching and fretting at this plot for a while. And yet however he went about it, he’s pulled off a real coup with this novel.

The war between King John and his barons we encountered in book 7 resurfaces in this last tale, with Alan and Robin joined by old friends and new as they navigate the impossible currents of their masters’ politics. Fighting for justice against King John is one thing, but when those very rebels offer the throne instead to the French, then which was can a loyal Englishman turn? This is the dilemma Robin and his friends end up facing. That’s something of a spoiler, I guess, but an early one, and if I’m to tell you anything about the book at all, it has to include the fundamental point of it.

From a brutal siege at Rochester castle, we follow the adventures of Robin and Alan across Kent and the south, imprisonment and war, betrayal and revenge, all the way to Nottingham and Lincoln. There are four points I think about this work that deserve specific mention.

There is a sense of ‘full circle’ about book 8. In book 1 we met Robin Hood the outlaw, running a vicious godfather-like world and carrying out guerilla war in the forests against the authorities. Over successive books, Robin had changed, achieving legitimacy, title and a role at the heart of the Kingdom. Here, now in book 8, we are treated, at least for a while, to a return to form. There is a sense that despite the characters’ now rather mature age, we are seeing them relive their youth and the excitement of those rebel days. This I loved. This, for me, is what I will take away from the novel.

Angus Donald is rapidly becoming the ‘master of the siege’. It can be extremely difficult to include at least one siege in a book multiple times within a series. I’ve done it myself, and it’s very easy for them to become blase and samey. There are sieges throughout the Outlaw Chronicles, and some of the books pretty much centre on one (The Iron Castle, for example.) And in book 8, there are two sieges to handle. And you know what? They are exciting, unpredictable, fresh and superbly-executed. Every siege Donald handles he manages to produce something new and worthwhile, which is a masterful thing.

The characters are fluid and changing. It is ridiculously easy to maintain a character, and it is equally easy to mess up their progression. To have your characters grow old and mature over a series in a realistic and noticeable way while maintaining the traits that make them who they are is a skillful thing. Alan and Robin, Thomas and Miles, plus their many companions, are painted well and have grown with the reader. Even the absence of Little John does not mar the sense of character at the heart of the book.

Finally, the death of Robin (see? I told you the title held a spoiler.) Such a momentous event – in history, let alone at the climax of a series – has to be handled just right. To have Robin die in some glorious golden way would be cheesy to say the least. To have him butchered out of hand in a sad, random manner would leave the reader huffing grumpily. To achieve something that is realistic, tragic, sad, noble and personal is a real bonus. And that is how this book ends. It is all those things, but I think the most important point is that it is personal. Robin’s end is not some great battle scene like the one that took King Richard. It is the result of strands of the tale long in the making, and it is truly a personal thing. Also, it took me by surprise in the end, which is magnificent. Oh, not that he might die – note once more the title – but how it might come about.

In short, The Death of Robin Hood is a tour-de-force and has shot to the very top as the best in the series, which is fantastic for a finale. If you’re not read the books, you’re in for a treat, because there are 8 now waiting for you and you can demolish the whole tale from beginning to end. If you have, then fear not, loyal readers. Donald has done you proud. This book ends the Outlaw Chronicles with a bang AND a whimper. It’s out today. Go buy it… trust me.

The Swan Diptych

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Last review before Christmas, and last review of the year: The Swan Diptych by Ian Thomson.

I’ll begin by pointing out that when I started to read the book I had absolutely no idea what to expect, since I knew nothing about it. I believed it to be a work of Historical Fiction. Beyond that: nothing.

And by the time I was a third of the way through it, I was floundering, wondering how on earth I could categorise or pigeon hole the book. It is in the main part historical fiction, but there are heavy elements of fantasy in places, especially in the first of the two stories, while there is a strong undercurrent of crime novel, especially in the second.

The first of the two stories, which takes place in 14th century Lincoln, tells the tale of a Royal visit that goes somewhat awry due to the mental derangements of the cathedral’s dean and the inadvertent pooping of a swan. The story is largely HistFic, but includes the point of view of the swans, who speak at times, lending the fantasy element to the tale. That being said, that element does not detract from the feel of the story and I finished it with a smile on my face, brought about by a gentle, clever humour and a well-written tale. This story is, however, quite short. Perhaps only 1/4 of the whole book.

The rest of the novel is taken up by the second story, though this one in truth feels more like three tales cobbled together into one. It begins as a 16th century murder mystery in a Cambridge college and sets itself up as a proper whodunnit. It was atmospheric and rich and I was just getting into it when it was resolved, less than halfway through the book! The story then shifted to telling the backstory of the murderer in more detail than the story that spawned it, which felt a little odd, and yet it was in itself an excellent story. Then, when that one was over, we leapt forward a generation to another Royal visit, in the time of Elizabeth I, when young students from the first part are now the old masters. Here we are treated to a potted history of the college in the form of a document for the Queen. In all honesty, at three quarters of the way through the book, the second tale felt so disjointed and I couldn’t see where the story was really going. At that point I was preparing to allocate three stars to the book. Then, in the final hour, that last part of the second story threw us the point and the twist that made it make sense.

Overall, while parts of the book were for me a little disjointed, the stories were good and extremely well told. Thomson is apparently an English professor at Lincoln, and his skill with the language shows in his writing. It is graceful and flowing and elegant. And for me, hw stands out in his ability to use archaic language and old-fashioned words and yet fit them seamlessly into the text so that even an uninformed reader can divine the meaning of words he might not know from the context alone. I love, for example, the word ‘flummery’. It made my day reading it.

The Swan Diptych is an engaging read and for any minor difficulties I found with the story structure, full of dark humour, gorgeous language, vivid descriptive and gripping scenes. It will make an excellent few hours’ read for anyone, especially those with an interest in the medieval through Tudor eras, those with an interest in collegiate or ecclesiastical matters, or just those who love a good tale.

Written by SJAT

December 24, 2015 at 12:16 pm