NY: St. Martin, 2009.
It’s 1188 and Henry II of England is approaching the end of his reign, embroiled in unproductive fighting against Philip of France, as well as against his own rebellious sons. But this story is set in the royal forest of Sherwood, near Nottingham, where Robert Odo, youngest son of a Norman baron, and known as Robin Hood, holds sway.
The narrator is the thirteen-year-old Alan Dale, looking back from his old age at his youth as a thief on the run who is taken in by Robin as his protégé and trained both as a warrior and as a musician. All the characters you know from the stories are here, but not as you would expect them — Tuck, the priest (who used to be a Welsh longbowman before taking orders); the giant John; Will Scarlet, who is about Alan’s own age; Much the miller’s son; and Guy of Gisborne, Alan’s implacable enemy; and Marie-Anne, Countess of Locksley and Robin’s betrothed, whom Alan (and practically everyone else) worships from afar. There’s also Hugh, Robin’s brother, who acts as Executive Officer and head of intelligence for the outlaw gang, whom the author has invented for very specific reasons which I won’t go into.
And “gang” is the operative word. This is not Disney or Errol Flynn. These are not a bunch of rollicking “merry men,” except perhaps when they’re drunk. No, these guys are thieves and stone killers. Robin takes from the rich, all right (that’s where the money is), but he keeps what he takes. And he doesn’t hesitate to wreak bloody vengeance on anyone who betrays him, enforcing his rule by what can only be called terror. He’s coldly phlegmatic on the surface but raging deep within — what Tuck (who is sort of an amateur psychologist) calls a “hot cold man.” You can think of him as the capo of Sherwood. “Little John,” in fact, is even more bloody-minded and often acts as his boss’s enforcer. We see all this through Alan’s eyes as he comes to understand the dynamics of outlawry and the charisma of Robin’s somewhat warped personality. Of course, the king’s men, including Sir Ralph Murdac, the historical Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, are no better. That’s just the way the world was in the late 12th century.
In many ways, Alan’s first year is idyllic, hiding out at a farmstead-cum-training camp deep in the forest, but then the sheriff finds them and most of those present, including the women and children, are massacred. And suddenly the boy is in it up to his neck and for real. The author does a pretty accurate job of portraying non-aristocratic life in England at that time — a world in which the law for the little guy generally was whatever those in charge said it was, where someone like Alan’s father could be yanked from his bed and hanged in front of his cottage merely on orders from the lord. Also, the outlaws include not only archers but a corps of spearmen and a small body of mounted men-at-arms, which is more realistic than the longbow-toting legends. On the other hand, Robin isn’t actually Christian (he has good reason to loathe the Church), since the author presumes that small pockets of the Old Religion still survived in out of the way places in England under the Plantagenets. And he may be right, though he sometimes makes Robin seem almost a proto-Protestant. The book ends with a set-piece battle between the forces of, . . . well, not Good, exactly, but the enemy is definitely Very Bad. And the battle itself, which is going disasterously for Robin’s men, ends (or comes to a halt, actually) with an unexpected development that is pure Hollywood. And then, believe it or not, it happens yet again. And it all works. All in all, this is an enjoyable and well-written first novel, which is bound to spawn a series of sequels.