OUTLAW by Angus Donald

9 12 2011

England, late 12th century

“As good as Bernard Cornwell or your money back” it says on the cover. Well, Angus Donald is going to have to write many more books before we begin to equate him with Bernard Cornwell, who has written scores of superb novels set in an unparalleled variety of times and places.

That said though, if Bernard Cornwell were to write a story set in Nottingham and Sherwood Forest in the days of Robin Hood, it would be something like this. In fact, if I hadn’t known, I would have guessed that the author was Bernard Cornwell.

I looked around the field and my stomach turned to ice: it was scattered with dying horses, crawling, staggering, blood-soaked men, the air filled with bubbling screams and groans, the ground covered with so much gore that the lush clearing was green no more: a stinking midden of blood and mud, horse shit and shattered bodies. The battle smell was sharp as salt: a metallic odour, coppery and blunt at the back of the nose; with notes of dung and piss, fresh sweat and crushed grass. But above all that, above the pain and death and horror and filth, I felt a great swooping, skylarking joy at merely being alive, joy that the enemy was beaten, and that we were victorious.

So, yes, comparable to the work of Bernard Cornwell. And I will not ask for my money back.

The story is narrated by young Alan Dale, which makes it different straightaway.

In the Robin Hood books and Robin Hood films we read and see as children, he is invariably accompanied by Little John, Alan-a-Dale, Friar Tuck and – the one I always identified with – Maid Marian. But the focus is always on Robin – Robin and Little John, Robin and Maid Marian; we hear little of Alan-a-Dale or of others like Will Scarlet.

They are all here in this book. Maid Marian is the most beautiful woman Alan has ever seen – or will ever see; she is also a friend of Eleanor of Aquitaine (see why I identify with her?). Little John is also a superlative: the biggest, strongest man in the land. Alan Dale himself, of course, and Friar Tuck, the rebel priest with an appetite for the good things of life.

But Little John and Robin are ruthless villains running a protection racket that seems to cover half the Midlands and North, and Friar Tuck, though a natural rebel and heretic, frequently finds himself unable either to stomach or forgive their brutality and, on one occasion at least, in the invidious position of feeling compelled to speak out against it.

And Friar Tuck influences Alan.

But Alan cannot pull out, cannot go back. For a start, Robin subscribes to what we now think of as the IRA golden rule that there is no pulling out, no going back: desertion means death. And apart from that, while still a child he was caught stealing in Nottingham; he escaped, but the evil sherrif knows him and if he ever sees him again will have his right hand cut off at the very least. Medieval (Roman Catholic) “justice” had a great deal in common with Sharia “justice”. Perhaps the imposition of Sharia is simply an attempt to keep alive a medieval system in the modern world; and I am sure there are churchmen, not only Catholics but fundamentalist evangelical Christians as well, who would be delighted to restore medieval “justice” in Europe and the Americas.

But read the book – it is the first of a trilogy, apparently, and is full of hair-raising and totally unexpected scenes that, yes, could have been written by Bernard Cornwell. What more can I say?

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