After reading the previous two novels in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw Chronicles – Outlaw and Holy Warrior – I could not read King’s Man, the latest, fast enough. I happened to be abroad and couldn’t even wait to get home to my review copy. This is because Angus Donald has done an extraordinary thing – he has breathed new life into the legend of Robin Hood and his men. He has lifted Robin out of our preconceptions and expectations and thrown him into the midst of late 12th-century intrigue at its highest level. This is a dangerous, not straightforward place where Robin is both leader and vassal, hero and villain, lover and murderer. Watching Robin is our narrator here as in the previous novels, Alan Dale. Known for being a trouvère, or courtly singer, Alan has now grown from a boy into a strong and clever swordsman as well as a friend of the charismatic, kind and ruthless Robin, Earl of Locksley.
As King’s Man begins, much of the hope that followed King Richard’s return from the Crusades in Holy Warrior has evaporated – Richard has been captured, bound and imprisoned in the heart of the continent. His enemies re-emerge in England under the malignant leadership of Prince John. Chief amongst them is the old enemy of both Robin and Alan, Murdac, the previous Sheriff of Nottingham. John and Murdac make short work of turning Robin outlaw again – for this has now become very personal. They banish him to the woods where he works with Richard’s mother, the formidable Eleanor, to release her son by raising a king’s ransom.
As the Chronicles have progressed, Robin and Alan have become equals in the reader’s mind, as Alan grows up and Robin’s reliance on him increases. But here there are twists and turns in their relationship as both work to be the King’s Man, with all its complications and compromises. For much of the story, the two men go their separate ways with Alan on a mission to find Richard. This makes for an especially memorable episode in the book in which we have the introduction of another strong character into the Chronicles, Richard the Lionheart himself.
With Robin, Alan and their band of men, with Richard, chivalrous knights and beautiful ladies as well as evil and clever villains and damaged, dangerous women, this is a novel that cannot fail to grip anyone who has enjoyed Outlaw and Holy Warrior. Rarely is anything as it appears. The quality of the writing is superb – gritty, dirty, beautiful and violent by turn – making this a confident and assured third novel. Match that with characters that still fascinate, that still shock – you will not always like Robin, Alan and his men – and vivid 12th-century settings, whether in a wood, a palace or a dungeon, and you will be glued to each wonderful page.
The fourth Chronicle – Warlord – is published in July. The wait will be long but what a reward!