Angus Donald is responsible for reigniting my interest in medieval history – in the late 12th century no less, the time of Richard the Lionheart, Crusade, castles, chivalry, knights and outlaws. Especially one outlaw: Robin Hood. You may be forgiven for thinking that there is nothing new or original to say about this most infamous and familiar of rogues but how Angus Donald continues to prove this wrong, novel after novel after novel. Warlord is the fourth in the Outlaw Chronicles, a series that takes us into the heart of the world of Robin, Earl of Locksley, via one of his most loyal and brave knights, Alan Dale. Both poet and warrior, Alan is our witness and Warlord continues his account of these years of war and cruelty and short lives, fighting for King Richard in the retinue of Robin while trying to scrape together the seeds of a future peaceful life.
I would strongly recommend that you read the first three Outlaw novels first: Outlaw, Holy Warrior and King’s Man. If you haven’t read them yet, then do be aware that this review will inevitably contain spoilers for what came before – previous events have had consequences.
Set in the 1190s, the Outlaw Chronicles follow closely on the one before, charting the growth to manhood and then knighthood of young Alan, a peasant child driven to thievery after the hanging of his father. Rescued by Robin, then an outlaw, Alan grows up close to this charismatic leader who will do all in his power to help a member of his ‘family’ and is merciless in their protection. Robin of Locksley is a gangster, dispensing largesse and cruelty. These are dangerous days. The path to glory lies fighting infidels and fellow Christians, protecting Richard’s lands and defending the Holy Land. And yet, despite the glory and the thirst for chivalric honour, in the end it comes down to violence, vengeance, blood, scrambling to stay alive on battlefields, in forests and on besieged and battered castle walls. Greed for wealthy hostages and booty plays its significant part.
Previous novels have taken us on Crusade, into Germany and Austria to rescue the hostage King Richard, and we have witnessed horrors nearer to home, not least the vividly memorable account in King’s Man of the slaughter of York’s Jews. Warlord focuses on the five years after Richard’s liberation when he and his men have to put his realm back together again, reclaiming lands lost by Prince John and other nobles and going to war against the traitorous French king Philip. War’s one way to describe it but actually it’s more a series of sieges and skirmishes followed by treaties, all inevitably broken.
Alongside this sequence of terrifying and bloody exchanges, we have Alan’s struggle to come to terms with himself as a killer, as a future husband of his beloved Goody and as a lord in his own right. He is responsible for his own men, several of whom are men we are grown attached to, and he also has to pay the price for any wrong doing done to the most tragic of characters in the whole series, Nur. As Alan grows older and contemplates starting a family of his own, he is increasingly haunted by the fate of his father. Who is ‘the man you cannot refuse’, the man who is responsible for his father’s death at the end of a rope? Is it someone distant or someone much closer?
Warlord, very originally, looks at the impact of post traumatic stress on these medieval warriors. The things they witness and do are horrific. We are barely spared as readers. Angus Donald also shows the affect of such prolonged and back and forth conflict on the daily existence of ordinary people and on families. These are times when the distinction between French, English and Norman are blurred. Families are divided in two and loyalties become complicated. Despite the awful situation, Alan develops his own set of family loyalties which exist outside the oath to one’s king.
As we’d expect from this wonderful series, the characters are all richly rounded and fully explored. There is much, much more to the novels than battle, exciting as these scenes are. The richness of the books, including Warlord, is in the development of Alan and his perception of the world about him. Through him, we see the flaws and qualities of the most charismatic of people. Robin himself has changed since the earlier novels as Alan has grown up; Richard continues to mesmerise and charm despite his vanity and greed; William Marshal is a new force here, a rough and brave knight, a hero in the eyes of his men and king. We have lost baddies along the way but in this novel we have a good couple more and they are fascinatingly evil.
This is also a time of great growth and grandeur. Alongside the building of Paris’ Notre Dame we have Richard’s construction of the ultimate fortress, Château Gaillard. Men are seeking a closer relationship to God while grinding many of their fellow man into the ground.
Warlord introduces the extra element of a medieval mystery, a matter that stirred knights for generations. It adds another dimension to the novel, rooting it in the courtly mythology of the day.
King’s Man, the most recent of the Outlaw Chronicles, is a superb book and a tough act to follow, let alone beat. Nevertheless, Warlord manages it. The final two thirds in particular are compelling. From the moment that Alan arrives in Paris on his quest, the pages rip through the fingers. Brilliantly created by Angus Donald, Alan has grown into himself through the novels and in Warlord we are given a thoroughly convincing and mesmerising portrait of a medieval knight, complete with flaws but outstanding in his qualities. I am so relieved that there is more to come.