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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Hunter Of Sherwood: Knight Of Shadows, by Toby Venables. Oxford:Abaddon Books, 2013


"England, 1191. Richard Lionheart has left the realm bankrupt and leaderless in his quest for glory. Only Prince John seems willing to fight back the tide of chaos threatening England – embodied by the traitorous ‘Hood.’

But John has a secret weapon: Guy of Gisburne, outcast, mercenary, and now knight. His first mission: to intercept the jewel-encrusted skull of John the Baptist, sent by the Templars to Philip, King of France. Gisburne’s quest takes him, his world-weary squire Galfrid in tow, from the Tower of London to the hectic Crusader port of Marseilles – and into increasingly bloody encounters with ‘the White Devil’: the fanatical Templar de Mercheval."

This is the first novel in a series and I must confess I look forward to more. If you're a fan of the tales of Robin Hood, you'll probably be familiar with his nemesis, Guy of Gisburne. This isn't the first time I've read a novel which shows Prince/King John in a sympathetic light - Myself As Witness by James Goldman of Lion In Winter fame did that long ago. It's not even the first time I've read a book in which Robin Hood was not at all nice(Shield Of Three Lions by Pamela Kaufman does that), though the Robin in this novel is a nasty piece of work. And for the record, Richard really did say he'd sell London if he could find a buyer. Not a nice man. The best of the family was his father, Henry II.

 It's the first time, though, that I've read a book turning that super villain Gisburne into the good guy - not merely an anti-hero, but a decent man. This Guy of Gisburne has had to become a mercenary to pay the bills when his honourable and decent mentor, Gilbert De Gaillan, is deliberately sent on a suicide mission by that chevalier sans peur Richard the Lionheart, whom he had pissed off by standing up to him over an outrage Richard had committed. Nobody wanted to take Guy on as a squire after that and he has no lands left because Richard took them to raise money for his crusade. And one of his mercenary comrades and, for a time, closest friend, is a charismatic bowman called Robert of Locksley...

The author says he had in mind James Bond and Indiana Jones. As a mediaeval Bond, Guy even has his own Q, a character called Llewelyn who has a lab full of equipment and experiments, with Prince John as M. There's enough bloody action to keep even Matthew Reilly fans happy. There's also a good, strong female character and a likeable squire accompanying Gisburne.

As someone who has read the original Robin Hood ballads, I appreciate the reference to the ballad-Gisburne's horse skin coat and the fact that the original Gisburne was also a mercenary; this Gisburne is wearing the hide of his father's war horse, which was killed by Robin Hood. The black leather made me think of the costume worn by Richard Armitage in the BBC series, so I pictured him as the novel's Gisburne.

Probably a few too many flashbacks for my taste, but hopefully, having set up Guy's background in this book, the author won't have to do more flashbacks in the next. 

Good fun, well worth a read.

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