Thirteen-year-old Alan Dale, only son of a poor widow, scrapes a meagre living as a thief and cutpurse in and around the busy town of Nottingham. When he is caught stealing a pie and narrowly escapes the imprisonment and mutilation ordered by the cruel Sheriff, young Alan joins Robin Hood’s band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest. Growing up fast, he is taught swordsmanship by a hostage Knight Templar and develops his natural musical talent under the tutelage of a French troubadour, until he takes his place as a trusted member of Robin’s band. Robin is effectively the feudal lord of Sherwood, and Alan witnesses at first hand the ruthlessness by which Robin controls his territory. When Robin and the evil Sheriff Ralph Murdac become rivals not only for power but for the hand of the beautiful heiress Marie-Anne, Robin decides to challenge Murdac in a pitched battle – but a traitor in the band could destroy them all.
The tag line on the cover says, “Meet the Godfather of Sherwood Forest”, and a sticker on the front proclaims, “As good as Bernard Cornwell or your money back”. Between them they give a pretty good idea of what to expect. Here we have Robin Hood as a sort of twelfth-century Don Corleone, all-powerful within his territory, maintaining a private army and providing protection to those who pay him and brutal punishment to those who challenge or betray him. (Not so very far removed from normal procedure for a feudal lord, except that Robin is outside the law and answerable to – and protected by – no-one). Narrated in first person by Alan Dale, looking back on his life from old age, the structure is reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s Uhtred novels or his King Arthur trilogy. Though Alan appears to be shaping up to be an altogether sunnier character than Uhtred, perhaps more like Bernard Cornwell’s Derfel. It will be interesting to see how his character develops as the series progresses.
As well as Alan Dale, the band’s minstrel, all the familiar figures from the legends make an appearance, often with an inventive take on their stories and their association with Robin. Evil Sheriff Murdac is a villain in the Basil Rathbone mould, a well-groomed and fastidious weasel of a man, and his henchman Guy of Gisbourne is here given an unusual provenance (which I won’t spoil by revealing). Little John and Friar Tuck are instantly recognisable, and the famous quarterstaffs-on-the-bridge incident appears, though not quite in its usual guise. Robin’s beloved Marian (Marie-Anne) is here a great lady, heiress to the (fictional) earldom of Locksley, and Robin himself is a disinherited nobleman possessed of a sharp mind, steely determination and a streak of cruelty. My favourite character was the fictional troubadour (strictly speaking a trouvere, as he tells us, since he comes from the north of France) Bernard de Sezanne. A highly talented musician and composer, Bernard is vain, sentimental, cowardly (“I only like to wield my sword in bed,” as he puts it), and hopelessly devoted to wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order. He is also charming and funny and adds a welcome note of comedy to the proceedings. For example, here he is describing the love of his life to Alan, “How I loved her! I would have died for her – well, not died, but certainly I would have suffered a great deal of pain for her. Well, not a great deal of pain, some pain. Let’s just say a small amount of discomfort…..”
Robin Hood stories, like King Arthur stories, have a