PLOT - In the year 108X… Well, the Normans have just now invaded Wales, and a young Welsh prince is not having such a good time. His dad was slaughtered, his lands taken, and when he goes to Lhundien (London) to see wot’s all this then, he is told he has to pay a stupid huge “administration fee” to get the land back. Now, with the help of his dad’s greatest warrior, a Norman priest, and a load of even scummier than usual peasants, he must return to his home to get the money to buy his land back. CAN YOU FEEL THE THRILLZ? When he does, he is informed that there’s a late fee, because England is run by librarians. Which is good, because the thrilling tale of a headstrong young prince filling out form 32-B for Return of Homelands (Ancestral) is not exactly gripping drama. When he returns home again, the guy currently squatting in his digs decides he quite enjoys the boiled sheep and constant harp music and elects to keep the place by killing the rightful ruler. So he hides in the woods, makes a bow, and decides to earn the money to buy beck his lands the cool person way: Steal it from the assholes who took the land in the first place. He rejoins with his friends, makes some clever plans, gets a giant bird costume, the usual Robin Hood stuff. Oh, yeah, you heard me. He wears a giant bird costume. And not for just one mission or something. All. The. Time.
(Inasmuch as this is a book and leaves me no photos, most images in this review shall be of famous Welsh persons and aspects of Welsh culture, such as it is.)
THE GOOD : Setting the book at this time and place brings the Norman/Briton conflict to a real head that’s often lost in the adaptations that take place 200 years down the line. The author does have a way with words, and during many of the descriptive bits, you really feel transported to the time and place. His dialogue sounds suitably antique, but not so much so that it’s stiff or dull. And the book is just full of historical tidbits about politics or everyday life that don’t slow down the plot. And the idea of him buying back his land may sound lame, but it’s a nice twist on some of the old stories where he was stealing to ransom King Richard from the Bavarians. All these aspects combine to make this book an extremely satisfying read is what I would be telling you if the author could pull his head out of his ass.
(Little known fact: The Welsh love to eat gold.)
THE BAD : As you may have guessed, astute literary tone detector that you are, the author’s head spends a lot of time wedged up his ass. He just can’t help finding himself fascinating, and as a result, the book has a tendency to sprawl all over the place and grind to a halt every couple chapters as we learn another fascinating historical tidbit that is not worked naturally into the story at all. It’s enough that we know Bran made a bow, we don’t need to know how he seasoned the wood. It’s enough that we know De Braose built a castle, we don’t need to know how he sealed the cracks between stones. And his tendency to try and make his noble’s dialogue as show-offy as possible led to not only the worst sentence in the book, but the worst sentence I’ve ever read in any novel ever. This will be discussed at length later.
(This book is about a prince of Wales, not the Prince of Wales. Thankfully.)
THE OTHERWISE WORTHY OF MENTION : I tried reading this one in the old-school ink and paper and glue and cardboard edition, but it was tough going, so I went for an audiobook instead. This job gets easier when I can do it while driving, but it's difficult to the point of impossible to go back and check things, so I wound up pretty much reading the book anyway when I skimmed it to make notes. I've found the author, Stephen Lawhead, referred to in multiple places online as a "Christian novelist", but there was none of that on display here, despite all the priests. Which is good. Seeing Robin Hood thank Jesus every time he successfully steals something would be weird, to say the least. Though not as weird as that movie where Santa Claus prays before his flight.
(Adam Verner indicates his nipple.)
AUDIO BOOK NARRATOR ADAM VERNER : He’s okay. He certainly has a good grasp on the actual narrative parts of the narrative, and his descriptions are interesting to listen to. He manages to hold the listener’s attention pretty well, even during the long, boring parts. He’s American, and doesn’t try for accents, but his character division is still good. The only thing is… I do own a copy of the actual ink and paper and cardboard and glue edition of the book, and therefore I know there is a Welsh pronunciation guide at the end. Maybe the guy could have looked at it? He makes a good guess at everything, and it’s not so noticeable that I’d still know if I hadn’t read it. But still, it’s a little annoying when he gets nearly every one of the countless Welsh words wrong. And he pronounces Brychan differently for Rhi (King) Brychan and Bran ap (son of) Brychan.
(Run in terror, Norman swine!)
ROBIN : Real name- Bran ap Brychan. For all of you who were wondering why that would bother me, there’s your answer. Code name - not Robin Hood. It’s “King Raven”. He’s also considered to be a sorcerer. King Raven the Sorcerer in Welsh is Rhi Bran Hwd. So, you know. There’s that. As a character, he’s very much in the classic idiom of “Wealthy layabout grows a pair and fights a corrupt power” Hood. This can be a tough kind of Hood to do well, and the book mostly does a good job of it. They surely ramp it up one of twenty notches. Rather than a noble losing some land based on a technicality, he’s a prince losing his kingdom to conquerors. Rather than running off to the woods with his jolly bunch of lads, he’s chased down like a dog and saved from the brink of death. As far as his outlaw exploits go, I just really hope they never make a movie on this one, because no matter how dark and gritty it is, he still dresses like a giant bird.
(I don't care what he says, it is unusual.)
LITTLE JOHN : Poor Iwan. Even when he’s all Welshed up, he gets less character development than everyone else. He’s the leader of King Brychan’s war band, and the only survivor of the battle that takes their lives. He’s built up as being a loyal subject and faithful friend and caring advisor and father figure to Bran, but rather than actually doing stuff that involves that, he mostly stands around and scowls. He’s good at it, but still. His nickname comes when Friar Aethelfrith says that his name is John in “civilized language”. The Little part is for the usual reason. Actually, it’s the only time the book took the easy way out instead of trying to be clever. Nobody cares about Little John.
(I made this with technology!)
WILL SCARLET : He rather irritatingly fails to make an appearance for the entire book. Why is that irritating? I found this book at a Barnes and Noble after noticing the freshly-minted sequel “Scarlet” on the new releases table. So I spent the whole of this book expecting Will to put in an appearance. Guess not. There’s some guy called Sciarles that I would have assumed was Will if Adam Verner wasn’t pronouncing it “Charles”. But my flip through the first few pages of the sequel makes it clear it’s a different guy. So fuck off, Sciarles.
TUCK : Brother Aethelfrith here is the best freakin‘ Friar Tuck I‘ve ever read. In case you were wondering at the origin of his name, and I can’t imagine you aren’t, after he names Iwan Little John, Iwan names him Tuck, because he’s a fat bag of food. Harsh, Iwan. He’s also the one who turns up and gets them to direct their activities in a more positive way than random brigandry. Doesn’t really do that much outside of being the resident smart guy and sassmouth, but the third book in the series is named “Tuck” so I’m guessing he steps up. But despite having a smaller role in the plot, he provides excellent comic relief, and strikes the proper balance of piety and partying, which as I’ve noted is tricky. Oh, also there was another priest earlier in the book that I thought would be Tuck, but he turned out not to be, which I call “getting Sciarlesed”
(Welsh Corgis. Tiny and ineffective, but remarkably persistent. Also the favorite dogs of The Queen. Coincidence?)
MUCH : Not in this book, but if he was, he’d probably be named “Mwycche,” and have some really depressing origin.
(She's as pretty as two sheep!)
MARIAN: Or Mherian, as she‘s called here. As usual, pretty underdeveloped. The hero wants her,
the villain wants her, and there’s barely anything to indicate that she has anything to offer other
than her precious precious vagina.
(I've seen the movie, and he's more of a Mr. Adequate.)
SHERIFF : Ehmmm… No, not really. Not even in that cheating way I sometimes do. But the opening of “Scarlet” promises a sheriff of some description, so I’m sure we’re all looking forward to reading the exploits of Sheriff Whylllywme ap Byrndwgyn Gnarx Erxxen xax Scradzz.
(According to the website, this is traditional Welsh fashion. So the Welsh dress like evil picnics.)
SIR GUY : To my great amazement, Sir Guy actually does make an appearance. In the last few chapters, there’s a big big shipment of money coming in to the town, and a hotshot young marshal names Guy from the town of… ugh… Ghigesburgh is in charge. Thankfully, they start calling him by the Normanized Gysburne before t oo long. He fights the Merry Marchogi and they take his stuff. He really doesn’t do much but set himself up for a bigger role in a sequel. Incidentally, I was originally going to write about this knight called Guiscard that showed up earlier, but a few chapters later, Gysburne showed up. Sciarlesed!
(No, no, no! I wanted a picture of King William Rufus, not William Rufus King!)
THE MAN - This is set during the reign of William Rufus, a.k.a. King William II. William is a fairly interesting early monarch, and I was upset they didn’t really use him all that much. Bran’s political dealings are all with the king’s right-hand-man, the Archbishop of Someplace. Hopefully, the sequels include the King’s death, as he was allegedly killed by an arrow that ricocheted of a deer and stuck directly in his heart.
(Look at him. He runs like a Welshman. Doesn't he? Doesn't he run like a Welshman?)
OTHER MERRY MEN : Well, other than the already-mentioned Sciarles and a swarm of servants and peasants that get just enough development to make me annoyed that they don’t have more, the only notable good guy is Angharad, the old woman who trains Bran. At first, he thinks she’s just a crazy elderly person who lives in the wilderness but soon learns she has a lot to teach him. I understand in the sequel, he returns to her home and he dies, her body slowly fading away. Then at the end Bran sees her standing next to Obi-Wan and either old or young Anakin, depending on what edition you’re watching.
(By way of apology for mocking the Welsh, here's a picture of a hideous stereotype of my people, the Irish, courtesy of Star Trek.)
OTHER VILLAINS : The three main villains are Baron Neufmarche, Baron deBraose, and his nephew Count Falkes deBraose. The Baron deBraose was given King Brychan’s land by the king, he gave it to Falkes, which he technically wasn’t supposed to do, and Neufmarche wants the land, because it’s next to the land he was given. They are so goddamn boring that I don’t remember any other damn thing about them, and I was only able to remember which one did what by process of elimination. One of them wants Mehrian. Neufmarche, I think. Whoever it is, he has a jealous wife whose personality is seriously all over the map. Sometimes she’s weak and simpering, sometimes subtle and cunning, all the time vague and irritating. Abbot Hugo de Rainault from Robin of Sherwood shows up here, which is nice. He’s the new head priest under the Count or Baron or whoever, and at the end, he hires Guy to be his personal guard. Adding to this the fact that there appears to be a sheriff in the next book, it appears they’re going for a more traditional sequel. Looking forward to it.
(I only know what the word spendthrift means thanks to a random spotting of a Jimmy Olsen comic online a few years ago. I couldn't find that comic, but this one's just as good. Let's face it, if you're looking for stupid pictures of Jimmy Olsen online, you're not exactly strapped for choice.)
”Friar Aethelfrith stifled a hoot of contempt for the man’s insinuation. Instead, he beamed beatifically and loosed a soft fart.”
WORST SENTENCE I HAVE EVER READ IN A PUBLISHED NOVEL:
“Would he be considered niggardly, or perhaps a spendthrift?”
Hi guys! I’m a pretentious historical novelist! Watch me, as in a single sentence, I manage to use two words that nobody EVER uses anymore, one of which people are vaguely familiar with only because it sounds like a horrible racial slur, and the other that means the exact opposite of what it sounds like! DHURRRR.
CHOICE QUOTES FROM ONLINE REVIEWS :
"Lawhead is a gifted writer, a fact made even more apparent by his lack of the use of profanity, illicit sex or unnecessary violence."
"I'm not any sadder for reading this book, but I'm certainly not any more enriched or anything."
"And after seeing Richard Armitage play Guy of Gisborne, it was hard to stomach him as a French knight, saying things like 'n'est ce pas?' and reminding me absurdly of Hercule Poirot!"
ONE ONLINE REVIEW REPRODUCED IN ITS ENTIRETY :
COMING UP NEXT :
Already-promised! Now-delivered! Thrill to “The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men!”