I’m going to have to come right out and say it – I’m a huge fan of Angus Donald’s Outlaw Chronicles series. And Grail Knight is, in my humble opinion, his best yet.
I’m also a huge fan of Angus’ Alan Dale. Especially he ‘old’ one, the narrator, at the start and end of the books. The books hinge on Alan. He is the main character. He is doing the remembering and the telling of the stories and they are from his point of view. The old Alan writes with such pathos and feeling as though only now can he understand what the young Alan doesn’t always. About what he got mixed up in – and had to fight his way out of – and about Robin Hood and his own relationship with him. I, for one, would think there is mileage in a book solely of ‘old’ Alan’s reflections and his life ’now,’ the period when he’s recounting the tales of his youth. Check out the vivid, almost Disney-esque descriptions of Sherwood near the start and tell me that couldn’t hold its own throughout a whole novel. There you go.
Grail Knight was set up nicely in the previous book, ‘Warlord’ and gets going from the off. But not how you’re thinking. Not with a “Hey! Let’s go look for the Grail!”, from the start. It’s more subtle than that. The story casts out several strands, builds seemingly in other directions but then comes together to coalesce (if strands can coalesce) into that noblest of Middle Ages quests. But the reasons and the thinking behind the quest, from the characters and Angus here, are if you’re up for it, very interesting.
Of course, in the period the book is set, the Middle Ages, it is impossible to avoid talk of religion. It was, it seems, much more a part of peoples’ daily lives, than we can possibly imagine. In Angus Donald’s Outlaw series, there are often what seems like the equivalent of two religions they didn’t understand, fighting for control over their lives. Christianity maybe the ‘official’ religion, but people, out in the fields and forests, still need the help found in an older religion. Many have replaced faith in the gods and goddesses of the fields and the trees and the pools, with faith in other, newer kinds of equally inanimate objects that may or may not have had some connection with the new, one God. Which is how the book starts, with Alan trying to make sense of people putting faith in an ordinary-looking old flask they say was given to their priest in a dream. But which Alan knows he bought for a few coins in France, when he needed something to drink from. The book is in some ways an interesting exploration of who is right. The Grail of the title is nothing special to look at either. Angus goes for the idea that it was a fairly ordinary bowl, used by Jesus and the disciples at the last supper to mix wine in, but then held His blood, or drops thereof, at the time of His crucifixion. It is only special because of what it is believed to have contained. As is Alan’s flask. The Grail, many people believe, has power because of what it contained. Alan believes his flask could have the power he wants it to have, for the same reasons.
So, what Alan has to wrestle with is the, to him, absurdity, though sometimes the necessity, of trusting in or believing in, something you know cannot be what it seems others want it to be. During the novel, as events unfold, his view doesn’t exactly change, but he becomes more understanding. If someone thinks something can or did do what they said, who is he to contradict their belief? Alan, while having absolute faith in something, someone, he has never seen but has been told controls every aspect of his life, struggles to understand others’ faith in something they can see, right in front of them. Is it the ‘real’ grail they find? It is if enough people believe it is. It is, even if you’re the only person who believes it is. It is if Robin Hood tells you it is what you’re looking for. Interesting.
Grail Knight is an excellent, all-action, full-blooded story on – at least – a couple of levels and one which will reward you richly however you come at it. There is derring-do, there are narrow escapes against impossible odds. Nemeses are confronted, cultures clashed. Other varieties of Christianities looked at. There is remorse and redemption, friends measured and tested and some found wanting. There are other shocks and plenty of ‘endings’ (for various characters and not all of the at the point of a sword kind) a-plenty too, especially in the second half. Angus makes some very brave decisions on his characters’ behalf (you may need to set your face to stun on a couple of occasions). But they are the right decisions, as there can be no doubt now that Angus OWNS Sherwood, Robin and all.
If there was one way I think Angus could improve the series, it would be to have more tales set in England. His characters have ranged far and wide down the five books and I think that it is time to take them back to their mythological roots. He has reinvented the characters, yes, but he should be wary of taking them too far away from what it could be argued, people know and love about them. I have no idea what the storyline for ‘The Iron Castle’ is, but if that too involves foreign travel, so be it. The next one then should be set in England, in Sherwood (and not in caves) and feature the sherrif, or someone similar.
As I’ve tried to say, Grail Knight is a beautifully planned and executed novel. Richly imagined, I would think is the way reviewers would describe it. I really couldn’t have enjoyed its thrilling and rewarding tale if I’d tried. If you thought that with book number five an author could perhaps be forgiven, that it might even be understandable, for taking his or her foot off the gas, eye off the ball. Then with Angus, you need to think again. Grail Knight will be a tough act to follow, but then I’ve thought that sort of thing with Angus before. I thought King’s Man would be difficult to follow, but he proved me wrong and I’m so much looking forward to being proved wrong again, when Alan and Robin – and some of the others from Sherwood – return for book six The Iron Castle – very soon.