Sir Alan Dale and Robin Hood, Earl of Locksley, are back and how good it is to see them! If you’ve not read the previous novels in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw Chronicles – and why not? – then be warned that you might want to stop right here.
The year is 1203 and the Earl of Locksley has a new master. With Richard the Lionheart long dead, his youngest brother John is now King of England and Duke of Normandy, neither of which title is safe. Philip of France is driving John from his Normandy lands while stirring up John’s nephew Arthur to threaten his English throne. Infamous rebel, Robin of Locksley is given the chance by John to win back his titles and land. They will be his reward for three years’ service to a king that no-one can trust. Sir Alan Dale’s sword follows his master’s and, against all better judgement, both men soon find themselves leading their mercenaries, the Wolves, into combat in France.
Initially, Robin and Alan must fight against Arthur, the young Duke of Brittany, finally beating the youth who is no more than a pawn in this war between kings. Arthur’s fate – his mysterious but no doubt violent end – is a source of fascination to medieval historians and novelists alike, particularly concerning the role of John himself. The deed itself probably took place in the darkest of dungeons and 800 years of history has done nothing to lighten the mystery but in The Iron Castle Angus Donald presents one of the most unforgettable portraits of Arthur that I’ve read. The personal involvement of Alan in his capture and imprisonment is wonderfully done, bringing history to life. At one point, I almost shouted out loud on my bus as I reached a moment of such great tension I could hardly stand it. This is confident, assured storytelling at its finest.
But with one crisis over, another one begins and much of the novel presents the siege of Château Gaillard, Richard I’s greatest fortress, now threatened by Philip of France’s army and the power of his mighty siege engines. Robin and Alan, with their Wolves, are among the defenders on the inside, who have to battle not only Philip but also the overwhelming numbers of townspeople who have taken refuge behind these strong walls, draining the castle of its food and resources. Every arrow counts when there are none to replace them.
There is something about siege warfare that can, if done well, add whole new levels of tension and thrills to historical fiction and Angus Donald does this better than well. The attacks are relentless, the ingenuity of the defenders and attackers soars, and the suffering of the townspeople is overwhelming. There is heroism but just as evident is the utter misery, torment and squalour of a medieval siege.
What intensifies the situation even further is the very nature of the king that Robin, Alan and all the other brave men who live and die within these walls and baileys are fighting for. John’s character is a highlight of The Iron Castle – the perfect unkingly mix of cowardice, ambition and greed. Alan repeatedly asks Robin if John is worth their swords. The reader might be inclined to agree with Alan. But Robin has his own agenda. Loyalties are further blurred by the family ties that knights would have shared across political borders. Alan has family in France and facing him in the siege. He just has to hope they won’t kill each other.
Women are few and far between in The Iron Castle, especially without Nur and Goodie. But Matilda Gifford, the daughter of a fellow knight in arms, is an entertaining figure who shows us that Sir Alan is still a young man with much to learn. Intriguingly, sections of the novel are framed by Alan’s words from the distant future, which remind us how the same mistakes continue to be made generation after generation.
I have enjoyed each of the novels in The Outlaw Chronicles. I love their treatment of Robin, Alan and their men. Robin and Alan’s relationship is not always an easy one but its roots go deep and it is explored so well by Angus Donald. I read most of The Iron Castle in one sitting. It’s such an exciting, thrilling adventure but it is also full of life and lives, pulled from history and given breath on the page. With no doubt at all, this is my favourite of the series and also a contender for my top historical fiction read of 2014. This series might be six books long now but it goes from strength to strength – a remarkable achievement for the author and an absolute pleasure for the reader.