At the turn of the 14th century, Edward I, the legendary castle-builder and conqueror of Wales, has Scotland on his mind and it is almost in his grasp. William Wallace has done his worst and is now on the continent while Balliol, Comyn and Bruce – all contenders to the Scottish throne – are locked in a rivalry from which only Edward can benefit. However, Robert Bruce is no fool and he decides upon a different and more dangerous course.
Renegade is the second in Robyn Young’s planned trilogy on Robert Bruce. The fact that I knew little about Robert Bruce before and that I hadn’t read the first novel, Insurrection, mattered not a jot. Robyn Young writes smart history beautifully. From the first page, I was captivated by her descriptions of scenes, people and emotions. The cast is large and there is a movement in the novel as we follow Robert from Ireland to Scotland and to the English Court at Westminster.
The pace of Renegade is considered, like a well-conceived plan. In the beginning, we follow Robert’s mission to recover a hidden relic, the staff of Jesus, from a mysterious derelict monastery in the centre of a lost lake in southern Ireland. When he, and the staff, are captured by one of the many quarrelsome lords of Ireland and Scotland, Ulster, Robert begins to hatch his plot that will take the game to Edward, that most cunning and martial of kings, despite the heavy cost to himself. And so we follow Robert on his path, sometimes in battle or in a skirmish, sometimes engaged in more intimate struggles with his suspicious friends at the English Court or with his reluctant young bride. You might want to have your wits about you remembering the names of everyone we encounter, not least Robert’s endless stream of brothers!
Robert Bruce is not the only character to stand out – literally. William Wallace and Edward I are larger than life and unforgettable. While Edward is fierce in military strategy and a strong, broad figure despite his advancing years, William Wallace is a battling giant, lethal with an axe. Only one of these men can survive this battle.
For me, the scenes spent in the company of the wives – some reluctant, some happy – were welcome moments of peace in these terrible days. But the wonderful and poignant descriptions of their lot in life show that women were as vulnerable to danger as their warrior husbands. Childbirth claimed the lives of countless medieval women. Stoicism and fear also defined the lot of many, with rarely any freedom of choice. The richest women are little more than spoils of war or bargaining counters. The poorest are at the mercy of rampaging armies. We see whole settlements driven into woods by fire and sword.
The detail that Robyn Young brings to the history is remarkable. It mixes here, just a little, with a slight air of mystery – Edward’s aspirations to be a new Arthur, the staff and the other royal relics, the witch banished to the outskirts of a town, the foretold destiny of Robert Bruce.
I have only one difficulty here and it has less to do with the novel than with this period of history. I can only think of one man in Renegade that I actually care for, and he isn’t Robert – it’s his friend Humphrey. I can’t help but dislike Robert, just as I dislike Edward. Much of the story revolves around deception, treachery and disappointment in one’s friends or kin – Bruce is at the heart of this. The lords are as unattractive as each other on either side and it seems to me that the women here have little to be thankful for, despite their rich robes and comfortable beds. For a cast of knights and lords who love jousting and courtly pomp and imagine themselves sitting round a new Round Table, there is surprisingly little honour on either side.
Nevertheless, Renegade is an enjoyable read with enormous depth and detail, the result of Robyn Young’s intricate historical research and knowledge and her considerable talent as a storyteller.