AD 1215: The year of Magna Carta – and Robin Hood’s greatest battle. King John is scheming to reclaim his ancestral lands in Europe, raising the money for new armies by bleeding dry peasants and nobles alike, not least the Earl of Locksley – the former outlaw Robin Hood – and his loyal man Sir Alan Dale. As rebellion brews across the country and Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders, a plan is hatched that will bring the former outlaws and their families to the brink of catastrophe – a plan to kill the King. England explodes into bloody civil war and Alan and Robin must decide who to trust – and who to slaughter. And while Magna Carta might be the answer to their prayers for peace, first they will have to force the King to submit to the will of his people.
So, I must confess that I’ve been obsessed with the Robin Hood legends since I was a small child. I daresay it was the product of growing up in the Midlands, and as a heartily unsporty child, displaying a modicum of talent in Archery, and so deciding that I was clearly destined for a life as a wood-dwelling outlaw. Whilst that hasn’t happened (yet), I still love a good book on Robin Hood, and also find the time period in which he (probably didn’t) exist intriguing, as our country changed enormously, in ways that still affect our very ways of life today.
This is the 7th in Angus Donald’s Outlaw Chronicles, a series of books which take a genuinely new and exciting look at an ancient legend, and have been thrilling many readers (including myself), for many years now. Many of these ‘Action/Historical Fiction’ books, of which we’ve seen a wave in recent years, either focus on bloody action, historical detail, or character. Angus Donald talent is in combining all three, creating gritty, affecting drama based in historical places and situations, and conjuring artfully drawn characters who inhabit every molecule of the three dimensions they are imbued with. The quality doesn’t let up in The King’s Assassin, despite having been writing these books for a good six or seven years now. Robin and Alan are still hugely readable characters, realistic in their flaws and decisions and compelling as they move the story along. Returning characters from previous books are a welcome surprise, and the plot is a page turner. Despite knowing that the major characters are likely to make it to the end of the series (or at least the final book), there are still several breath catching moments when I began to question that very idea… In addition, the time period is explored well – it’s always great to see genuine historical detail and infamous moments appear when you least expect it – whilst these may not be 100% accurate, I’d say they’re cracking books for getting teenagers and adults alike interested in history, with this compelling and imaginative take on the life of an English legend.
1667 – The civil wars are over. King Louis XIV crushed the nobility’s rebellion against his father, leaving the throne his. But the aristocracy hounds his every step – and realises that if they will not be loyal, they will at least obey. So the King plants a trap to ensnare them – building Versailles, a prison of opulence where his power is absolute. Trapped by the palace, they have no choice but to play the King’s game and to obey his rule. And so the court becomes a place of tactical liaisons and salacious passions. The Queen fights to keep the King’s attention from his mistress, and the King’s brother struggles to keep his relationship alive. Versailles is not the paradise it appears to be; instead, it is a labyrinth of treason and hushed secrets, of political schemes and deadly conspiracies. It is a place of passion and death, love and vengeance. The King will take what is rightfully his.
I should start by mentioning that this is an adaptation of a TV series – a lavish drama that I’ve yet to watch, but, if this book is anything to go by, one I’ll definitely be tuning into at some point. I was reminded of The Tudors – a series that had little regard for historical accuracy, but focused on character and utilising the genuinely startling true facts in order to craft compelling plots – just not necessarily in the right order… It’s had a fair share of people who enjoyed it, and a fair share who grumbled at the inaccuracies, but, as far as I’m concerned, anything that sparks an interest in history should be encouraged. And so it is with Versailles – a steamy, dramatic romp of a drama that isn’t always completely accurate, but forgoes dry academia for exciting and captivating plot, and explores the lives of genuinely intriguing real life characters. Whilst this is a period novel, the machinations of those in the court could be taking place in any modern day government, and there is a modernity to the prose that I think makes the book accessible for anyone – provided they’re okay with moments of violence, torture, and rather a lot of sex…
Author Elizabeth Massie has had quite the challenge – having to adapt the scripts of an entire series into one book – but does so with real skill, the short chapters serving to make the book a real page turner, but also allowing brief glimpses of the characters that manage to artfully paint very full portraits with surprisingly few brushstrokes. As for the characters? They are wonderfully three dimensional – living, breathing, beating adults who leap off the page and through the centuries to the reader. A particular favourite of mine was Phillipe – the King’s brother, a man whose sexuality was predominantly homosexual, but whose strong will of character and prowess as a military commander warned anyone from gossiping and allowed him to lead a relatively open life (various wives aside…) It all adds up to a thrilling read, and I’m hoping future series of the TV show will produce further books. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.