The King’s Assassin | Angus Donald | 2015, Pb 2016 | Sphere | 420p | Review copy | Buy the book
Time has moved on for Robin Hood and Alan Dale. King John has taken his nobles and country to the brink of disaster with their lands in France almost completely lost and dissent rife across England. There is a rage building. Many lords have had enough and chief among them is Alan Dale – there is almost nothing he will not risk to end this king before Alan himself is destroyed. John has one more chance. If he seizes victory against Philip of France, winning back his land and castles, then maybe he can return to an England at peace. Robin, Alan and the archers of Sherwood embark for France and there they endure fight after fight, battle after battle. They win some but all is turned on its head in the bloodied fields and forests of Bouvines in 1214.
The King’s Assassin is the powerful story of war on two fronts – there is John’s war against Philip and then there is Alan and Robin’s personal battle for survival and the protection of their families and manors. For the first, we are thrown into the heart of John’s military campaigns across the Channel. The fighting is hard, made harder still because most knights of the time would have had family on the opposing side. But this isn’t so much a fight for John, the men of Sherwood fight for Robin and many of them will pay the ultimate price. The battle scenes in The King’s Assassin are second to none – horrifyingly fierce, violently bloody and utterly tragic. The pulse quickens reading these chapters. Men we’ve come to care greatly for fight for their lives.
On the more personal level, the novel presents us with a picture of intrigue and conspiracy, with out hero Alan caught in the middle of it. The danger of the times is never in doubt and Alan is feeling the affects of years of living on a knife edge. He, like Robin, has grown older and both have sons to protect and guide. Alan’s love for his son Robert is desperately touching, revealing how tough life would be for a young squire and knight in training. Alan also has his part to play in the upbringing of Robin’s sons. There is a strong sense of moving between the generations. Not that Robin and Alan are prepared to give up the ghost quite yet. After all, Alan is ready now to find love again.
The King’s Assassin might be the seventh book in Angus Donald’s superb Outlaw series but it breaks into new territory, escaping the past, and does, I think, work very well as a stand alone novel. The story continues to be narrated by a much older Alan but even his circumstances are changing from previous novels. As for the younger Alan, this is a crisis time and he’s even prepared to risk his friendship with Robin to fight for a cause he believes in. Alan is a powerful knight in his own right now and it’s perhaps not a surprise that there should be increasing friction with the dominating, paternal Robin Hood. Alan still makes mistakes and it never gets any easier to watch him make them. Robin Hood remains a more mysterious figure, keeping his deeper thoughts to himself, even from his wife, but he is never less than fascinating. He and Alan are wonderful creations, of which Angus Donald must be very proud.
The novel culminates in the rebellion that led up to the signing of Magna Carta, 800 years ago this very week. Robin and Alan play no small part in events and it brings this period, and the act of the charter’s signing, to life. This powerfully resonates for us at a time when we are being reminded of its significance for our own times.
I cannot praise the Outlaw series enough. Over the years and through the novels, we have seen Robin Hood and Alan, their families, princes, friends and enemies, age and develop, challenging Hollywood perceptions of this most infamous of outlaws. The stories have been magnificent, covering the crusades, rebellion, Arthurian myth and war, and yet I think that The King’s Assassin is the finest of them all. The story is marked by surprises, shocks and twists. The mood is perceptibly darker, Robin and Alan are older and well aware of their own mortality. Difficult times face them both, as indeed it does the whole land.