Review: Warlord

Warlord by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How good it is to be back with Angus, Alan, Hanno and…the other bloke…oh yes, Robin of Locksley. How I’ve missed them.

So, what’s been a-happenin’ while I’ve been away?

Well, before we start, at the end of King’s Man there was a really poignant, thoughtful passage from the elder Alan Dale, musing on his life as the younger Alan. The memories were fresh, the people he knew still young, vibrant and alive. Never to weary, grow old or fade. A lovely ending to a superb book. So it was with no little anticipation, even excitement (I know, pathetic, isn’t it?) that I opened Warlord, the 4th in Angus Donald’s heroic re-imagining of the Robin Hood legends.

So, in King’s Man, Alan Dale seemed to be becoming more independent of Robin. Still a part of Robin’s band and one of his friends, not entirely stepping out of his shadow, but certainly seeing himself as, and being treated more and more like, an equal. That independence could be said to have come to fulfilment here in Warlord. Which is a book about Alan. His circumstances, his past and what is making him tick. Robin Hood actually only first makes an appearance on page 71. As I’ve mentioned before, Alan Dale is more of the centre for the ‘Outlaw’ tales’ focus than the reviews and the hype around a ‘new interpretation of the Robin Hood legend’ would have you believe. The books (I’ve read so far) could equally be about the legend of Alan Dale – and his friend/Lord/Master/protector/ally, Robin Hood. However, that probably wouldn’t sell books by the truckload, no matter how much more accurate it would actually be. And that’s probably why I’m not working in publishing right now.

Anyone could have written a series of books – indeed many anyones have and are still doing so – about Robin Hood’s life and times, narrated by and with Robin in the centre. But by looking slightly to the side, by actually writing about Alan, Angus is able to both root the stories in the historical reality of the period (so much as we are sure about), and also show his ideas for the (legendary, but most likely fictional) character of Robin Hood. By comparing and contrasting the Robin Hood of his legend, with what must have been typical behaviour for a chivalrous Knight of the period. Alan is much more than just the narrator however, which was my thought when I read the first few pages of the first book. He is far from a passive observer. His strong Christian beliefs are the light, while Robin and his more Pagan, more earthy, perhaps more real-world values, is (in) the shadow(s) created by that light. Because Robin doesn’t share Alan’s beliefs and seems more of a carefree, seize each opportunity as it comes, no matter from whence it comes, sort of character, it isn’t always plain-sailing between the two. In Alan’s view Robin is, more often than not, just a money-grabbing, opportunist god-less Pagan. Sometimes, only Alan’s respect for Robin’s sense of unquestioning loyalty in protecting those inside his family circle, keeps the two together. My thought is, that what perhaps makes Angus’s Robin appealing to us heathen sinners of today, is that Robin is actually like more like we are nowadays than Alan ever can be. I certainly have found some of Alan’s decisions only really understandable, if I try to imagine I’m back living in the late 12th Century.

The story told in Warlord, is actually a very interesting medieval mystery period piece, set in what we now call northern France. To have Alan at least in some way involved with the later life and death of Richard, Warlord has to be set in France. But to cope with the risk of readers being unable to identify with the Robin Hood legend going on in various 12th Century, not actually France places (and not swinging through the trees of Sherwood, drinking in ‘The Trip To Jerusalem’ and singe-ing the Sheriff of Nottingham’s beard), he concentrates his story’s focus on the tale of Alan’s search for the truth surrounding his father’s expulsion and death. In northern France. And ‘France’, we should remember, plays a very important part in the world of these English heroes. The characters speak French. They actually ARE French, for all intents and purposes. Alan is really Allan D’Alle, son of a French father, Henri. And Richard, Richard Cœur de Lion, the ‘Lionheart’ is in France, because it was his home. Because he is Duke of Normandy first and foremost. He might have been born in Oxford – only 91 years after Hastings – he spoke no English and was, during the 10 years of his reign, only actually in England for a total of six months. It’s only Robin that’s truly English and he’s the heathen. No change there, then.

Alan is in France at Richard’s request and the book opens with him riding headlong into trouble, to try and break the siege of a castle loyal to Richard, which is surrounded by the vastly superior forces of the King of (most of the rest of) France. They cling on to the castle, after many sterling deeds of derring-do, by the skin of their teeth. Then, Richard arrives, full of the joys of spring, and they have to move on, chasing ever after the cowardly French King. Alan can’t do much other than be told where to go and who to fight by Richard, but eventually does get time off for good behaviour to go on a quest of his own. He has spoken with a priest who knew his father and might be able to shed some light on his father’s background in France, the circumstances surrounding his expulsion and possibly who the mysterious figure, the ‘man you cannot refuse’, who might be behind his death, is. While he gets plenty of information from this priest, he also hears plenty that both disquiets him and shrouds his fathers past in yet more layers of mystery. Alan follows the trail through various regions of France all the way to Paris. Noting on his way, that the people who have information he might find useful, have a nasty habit of dying. Before, during and after they’ve spoken to him. When he finds the truth, and the reason behind the truth, it has been both staring him in the face and turns out to be way more dangerous than he could imagine. No one escapes Alan’s suspicion, not even Robin. He knows more than he’s letting on. Could he even have had some part in it all?

The main action of Warlord does seem to end a little early, to allow the next in the series, Grail Knight to be set up, but that apart, Warlord is a passionate, full-on, full-blooded, medieval tale of mystery and suspense. Events happen thick and fast; as you’d want them to, not always as you’d expect and not always as you’d actually want them too. And it whets the appetite for Grail Knight. Sitting on the shelf over there *points over there*

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