Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: Outlaw by Agnus Donald

Title: Outlaw
Author: Agnus Donald
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Published: 2011
Pages: 352

Rating: 5 out of 10

Outlaw tells the familiar story of Robin Hood in a new light. In 12th Century England, Robin is revered as a sort of rogue king by the people of the land. After a young man named Alan is caught stealing, he is taken in by the band of outlaws and begins training as a swordsman.

In this book, Robin Hood is not a merry adventurer, and even the basic premise of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is mostly taken out. Instead, Robin is truly like a king, not in the sense of majesty and glorification, but in the sense that with his power comes much responsibility and decisions to which, many times, there are no right answers. The men constantly trying to capture him could be viewed as enemies perpetually trying to steal his "throne." Even though the details are never explicitly spelled out, it appears that Robin offers to protect villages in exchange for taxation rights. Those who disobey his laws are punished severely. We don't see that much of the inner-workings of Robin's "reign," so I am not sure how successful it is proving. But in one memorable scene, Robin and his men come upon a smoldering village that has been raided and burnt down. A woman tells him spitefully that he promised to protect them.

I didn't dislike this book, or particularly like it either. I got through it quickly and easily, and the pacing was quick, with a lot of action. Though I was never bored, I always felt a sort of distance from the story.

First of all, I didn't really like the main character Alan. He is the typical warrior-in-training: over eager for battle and glory, falls in love for the first time, shows talent of course, attracts the eye of Robin Hood for his skills, and thus thinks himself quite important and goes around for the rest of the book acting like a noble (but not battle hardened) man.
In many situations, he takes drastic measures with ordinary problems. When he needs money, he steals an enormous ruby from a man who is hospitably letting him stay in his home. When he considers paying a prostitute to help him lose his virginity, he actually does so right away, and then a second time again. When a boy taunts and annoys him, Alan intentionally tries to get him killed by accusing him of betraying his father.
I thought that he took things quite far, and was surprised at the end to see none of this come back with any consequences.

*Spoilers, you can skip the rest of this paragraph* The boy who taunted him, Guy, was a bully and not a likable character, but so what? He wasn't that bad, and Alan should have just shrugged and moved on. Instead, he falsely accuses the boy of serious crime and plants evidence to back up his claim. Later, when they meet up again, he volunteers to duel the boy in front of Robin's band. I expected him to defeat the bully, but to show mercy and not actually kill him. So much for that - not only does Alan kill him, he whispers into the dying boy's ear that he was the one who planted false evidence on him, and to take that knowledge to Hell.
Gosh! Were a few taunts about Alan not being manly really worthy of all that? I was pretty surprised, and kept wondering if there was some hideously evil side to the bully that I had missed.

Another thing that I thought was very much missing from the story was a detailing of how Robin's band and rule actually worked. We see people paying him taxes in a scene at the beginning, and we see him doling out punishment. We see him fighting a lot of battles. But these are only the thinnest shades of the establishment and keeping of a kingdom, even such a small one.

For a few chapters, Alan is sent to court as a spy, and there he meets Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is depicted as prickly and strict, but fair. I was surprised that she appears to know all about Lady Marie-Anne (Donald's Maid Marian) being engaged to Robin. And Marie-Anne is one of her ladies in waiting. Eleanor even seems to know that recently, Marie-Anne went to see Robin. If he is such an enemy of the official rulers of England, why would the Queen not appear to care about this?

There were some other minor things that I disliked, one of them being the flashback style this book tried. I couldn't see any point to it. Alan, as an old man, is reminiscing about his time as a young outlaw. But there were only a handful of scenes in which it switches to him as a grandfather, literally about three. In one of them, he is frantically trying to save the life of his grandson. The change was jarringly sudden, coming right at the beginning of a new chapter and talking about "my grandson." With no indication that the time has changed, I was confused for a second. We don't know his grandson, and it certainly has nothing to do with the plot, so why do we need to know about how high his fever is?
Alan also speaks in French one time to a music tutor. As a lowly peasant, he wouldn't have known French unless he perhaps originally lived there. He refers to Tuck as "Friar Tuck" most of the time, except for randomly calling him the French "frère" only once. What...
And then, I disliked the romance/sex immensely. Alan "falls in love" with Robin's betrothed, Lady Marie-Anne, even though we never see them interact or speak to each other. It seemed so silly to me. And the entire thing with Kat, the town whore who Alan sleeps with twice, annoyed me.
A pagan ritual in the middle seemed not to mesh with the rest of the story, since even though it was vividly described, was never mentioned again. Paganism had nothing to do with the book anywhere except for in those paragraphs, though the book does focus a lot of attention on Robin's religious views, which are far from Christian.

I understand what the author wanted to do here - write a grittier, more realistic Robin Hood tale without glorification. I got a sense of that from the story, but I don't feel that Donald fleshed out his idea to the true promise it had, and it was a very good idea.

The ending didn't leave me with that satisfied sense of conclusion, and rather than tie things up in a good finish, it leaves things open for the sequel. But it wasn't a cliffhanger ending, thankfully, or else this book would have been knocked down a star.

An average book, but based on the writing, general premise, and steady action I would say that the sequel has potential to be better.