The Iron Castle by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Angus Donald’s ‘Outlaw Chronicles’ books have all been great reads. Well-written, exciting, action-packed and exactly what I want from my Historical Fiction.
There is a problem, however. They’re NOT about Robin Hood. Not even half about Robin Hood. Robin Hood is in the books, but in the background. We don’t follow him, we follow Alan. It’s Alan’s thought’s we are party too, not Robin’s. And Robin would probably have been the more interesting character, even going by the walk-on parts he has had. It is Robin’s thoughts and (perhaps) inner turmoils that I think would have been more interesting. Not just to me, but to your ordinary book-buying reader. If you’re going to sell it as a re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend, you really should feature Robin Hood a bit more. He has got a life away from Alan, of that there is little doubt, it’s just that we learn precious little about it. Obviously that is because it enables Angus’ Robin to move, unseen behind the scenes and pop up just when he is (or isn’t, dependant on what sort of scrape Alan has got himself in to) wanted. So, I ask some people what they think of when they think of Robin Hood. As I live in Denmark, those people are Danes. Even less knowledge of Robin Hood of legend, or with an outsider’s, objective view, you take your pick. Robin Hood? “Something about a forest in England and taking from the rich, giving to the poor” (I’m translating here) was the general consensus here at work the other day. One of the nurses who had lived over in England, could remember him having lived in Nottingham. “France?” “Eh?”
Angus promised much with the first book Outlaw and Nelson DeMille was right with his quote on the cover of the paperback version I have here: “Angus Donald has made everyone’s favourite outlaw a lot more interesting…” He was, in Outlaw. He isn’t, in the majority of the books after that. He can’t be, he isn’t in them enough. What Angus created in Outlaw I thought, was a really different, reconstructed, Green Man Robin. Caustic, earthy, as in of the earth, harsh though fair (of course) and interesting. He is a hero for people who needed one. A direct descendant of the King Arthur tales, a pre-Saxon hero, a summation of hopes, and pagan folk legends made flesh. Now, six books in, he’s swearing his allegiance to the King – by his faith in God, for goodness’ sake. It was a great start. But I would venture that many a reader has rushed through Outlaw, then bought book two Holy Warrior and thought “Hang on, this is supposed to be about Robin Hood! And he isn’t in it!” Well, he is, but more in name, than deed. And Alan and Robin aren’t in Sherwood either, not even in England much after Outlaw. Maybe Angus worked on the ‘you can take the boy out of Sherwood, but you can’t take Sherwood out of the boy’ principle. On that level, it would have worked a treat, kind of. If it had have been the two (or three or four, as it was at that point) outlaws taking their Sherwood nous to fight in the Holy Land – that would have been an interesting project to have explored. But by the time they embark, they are no longer outlaws, no longer forest-dwellers, but are gentry, Knights, with lands, castles, retainers and are on first name terms with Kings. And French in all but name. And remember, Robin Hood was a hero to the Saxons, fighting the Norman French. In Angus’ version, after Outlaw he is Norman French. They both speak fluent French, Alan is French, just with a name change and their King, Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Coeur de Lion, was French. It is estimated Richard spent as little as six months, in total, in England. Book three, King’s Man is also set in Europe, or France. Book four, Warlord pretty much all France, a brief dalliance in England, but nothing to get worked up about. Five, Grail Knight France again. Six’s The Iron Castle is ‘Chateau Gaillard’ – so you tell me where that is set. The King’s Assassin, book seven, will continue in much the same vein, it seems: “As rebellion brews across the country and Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders…” Not Sherwood, where even Danes know Robin Hood lives. But Flanders where…no one ever thinks Robin Hood has been, let alone lived. That’s the problem that has developed for me and I’ll wager for a lot of casual readers, it isn’t about Robin of Sherwood. It’s not about Robin and there’s very, very little set in Sherwood.
Then, the ’friendship’ between Alan and Robin is largely one-way a lot of the time and in the most of the books, very little is returned. On either side. Often, though Alan professes his love for his Lord and ‘old friend’, it’s hard to see why he should feel that way. Clearly, we are to feel that the love that was generated in Outlaw sees Alan through the subsequent books. To be honest, were I Alan, I’d have told Robin to piss off a long time ago. Robin takes him away from where he wants to be, puts him in danger at every turn, talks to him like he is an errant, ignorant child and generally doesn’t do anything much – apart from lending him money – to deserve Alan’s professed devotion. Alan too, isn’t the outlaw band member. He’s mostly French (though in some of the books I’ve listened to on Audible, he’s had a strong Yorkshire accent) and thanks to Robin and King Richard, he’s a land-owning Knight and Lord. So, if you read what he says and think ‘English,’ think again. It is perhaps, or would have been, historically accurate, but it’s not what one thinks when one wants to hear in tales of Robin Hood. OK, maybe Angus thought that Robin and friends, in Sherwood, fighting the Sheriff, stealing/rich, giving/poor, was too limiting and that all that could be said, had been written. But I beg to differ. And that is partly based on the fantastic Robin (and Alan) he created in Outlaw and partly based on delivering on the ‘Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest’ tag-line of the first book.
By taking the two friends out of England, I’m afraid Angus has ‘ordinarified’ them. Alan is just another, often down-at-heel, wannabe Knight and Robin is a pretty ordinary schemer, charlatan, liar, cheat and Lord. Not even a rogue, loveable or otherwise. He has a lot of connections that pop up here and there, but his actual dealing with those connections, we don’t see. He does want to get back to England, back to his home, with his wife Mary-Ann (you see what he’s done there?) and live happily ever after, but…that home is in Yorkshire and his wife lives with their sons in France, has done for several books now and, if it were possible, seems to have even fewer links with England, than Robin.
However, (it’s not all bad) take the book(s) on face value, and you have a really excellent, action-packed, riveting read. Each story is superbly well-planned and executed, contains all the highs and lows you’re looking for in your fighting historical fiction and, in my humble opinion, contains some of the most poignant, thoughtful, though-provoking writing on friendship, longing, regret and hope, it has ever been my pleasure to come across. The Alan that we meet at the start and finish (and sometimes in between) of the books, is a magnificent creation and should have a book or two of his own. No doubts about it. The Iron Castle doesn’t disappoint either (unless you’re looking for Robin, in Sherwood, as above). It begins in 1203, at the end of the time of England’s possession of the territories in France that became the English King’s after The Norman Conquest (there is an absolutely superb Historical Note at the end that you really should stay on for. Angus could easily write (a) wonderful Non-Fiction history book(s) in the future). The majority of the action, takes place in and around the siege of the Iron Castle of Chateau Galliard as Alan and Robin are there to help save the castle from being captured by the French and thereby help King John save Normandy (Interestingly, only King John is the same as the character we know from the Robin Hood books and films). It is a tense struggle, full of incident and really well and effectively written for the action taking place in relatively confined spaces. It is also book looking at the concept of a man’s honour and the dependancy on it to the extent that someone hides behind their honour to cover their own shortcomings or wrong-doings. Robin might say “A man’s honour is the most important of his possessions” but Alan (standing in for us) experiences it in quite a different, more realistic way. Buy this book, enjoy it for what it is. Just don’t go thinking it’s about the Robin Hood you’re thinking of.