That night Bran sat in the corner by the hearth, sipping wine in sombre silence, brooding over the unfairness of the Ffreinc king, the inequity of a world where the whims of one fickle man could doom so many, and the seemingly limitless injustices—large and small—of life in general. And why was everyone looking to him to put it right? "For the sake of Elfael and the throne," Ffreol had said. Well, the throne of Elfael had done nothing for him—save provide him with a distant and disapproving father. Remove the throne of Elfael—take away Elfael itself and all her people. Would the world be so different? Would the world even notice the loss? Besides, if God in his wisdom had bestowed his blessing on King William, favoring the Ffreinc ascendancy with divine approval, who were any of them to disagree?
When heaven joined battle against you, who could stand?
Author: Stephen R. Lawhead
Synopsis: In this medieval Welsh retelling of Robin Hood, dissipated young prince Bran ap Brychan is left with the responsibility for his people when his father is murdered—and with a price on his head, courtesy of the lord who has taken over his castle and his land. Bran never had much interest in being king even when there was a kingship to be had, but the terrible plight of his fellow Welshmen calls out to him. Setting up operations in the midst of the heavy forests around Elfael, he leads a band of outcasts in a campaign of hooded terror and robbery against the intruders, hoping to raise money enough to aid the people and buy back their land from King William.
Notes: "The Welsh are extreme in all they do, so that if you never meet anyone worse than a bad Welshman, you will never meet anyone better than a good one." Thus writes Gerald of Wales, quoted at the back of this novel as part of Lawhead's fascinating defense for his choice to set the Robin Hood legend among the Cymry—the eleventh-century Welsh. The quote continues with: "Above all, they are passionately devoted to liberty, and almost excessively warlike."
Lawhead's "Rhi Bran"—'King Raven'—starts off rather indolent and dispassionate, thanks perhaps to a privileged but abusive upbringing, but events and destiny waken the outlaw we all know and love. He's at least as much angry freedom fighter as playful robber, however, and his character development and exploits are neatly interlaced with a portrayal of historic Wales under Norman invasion.
Bran himself is a generally well-built character forced to undergo an arduous hero's journey, but Lawhead plays freely with reader affections and allows moments of flat dislike for the protagonist. Not only that, he creates a certain amount of sympathy—not approval, but understanding and pity—for Bran's enemies at times, alternated with horror. Sympathizing with 'the bad guys' is always an uncomfortable experience, but realistic in light of the humanity of the villains, and admittedly well suited to a tale of good-hearted thieves.
While the story is historical fiction first, it reads like fantasy, with several loosely supernatural occurrences to bolster that sense. The character development, action, and world-building so crucial to the success of the fantasy genre are all present, though I've met both worlds and characters with more powerful emotional resonance.
As for the writing, Lawhead is a serviceable if sometimes mildly annoying prosist with a good strong grasp of story structure. Comparing his Hood to Robin McKinley's Outlaws of Sherwood, the former cannot match the latter's beautiful phrasing and quick, powerful emotional connections, but is decidedly structurally superior. Hood may prove difficult for readers to get into on account of that, but the intriguing history and suspense win out eventually.
The portrayal of the medieval Church contains the standard grasping, worldly bishops and cardinals, but also holy, humble, and sincere churchmen; the latter including the ever-amusing Tuck, here in a role of lovable cornball heroism. The lot of them are blessedly free of anachronistic evangelical Protestant thought patterns—which sometimes appear in historical fiction from categorically Christian publishing lines (Thomas Nelson, in this case)—though Angharad has her suspicious moments. Lawhead treats history with deep respect, and publishing house aside, this book is simply fiction without the need for the word Christian preceding it.
The situation among the oppressed Cymry gives the Robin Hood legend a firm and unique placement, setting this novel apart from other retellings. It also raises the stakes enough to make its sequels seem not only like probably reasonable developments, but important and desirable ones.
Recommendation: Read it for a fresh take on Robin Hood and some interesting history. Don't pass up Lawhead's defense of his Welsh setting, either; that's likely to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.