Wolf’s Head by Steven A. McKay

Series: The Forest Lord #1 Rating: 3.5/5
Date of Publishing: July 2nd 2003 Genre: historical fiction, fantasy, fiction
Format: Kindle/Audible Available: Amazon, Barnes & Noble
Number of pages: 326 / 10h 31m Author’s website:  http://www.stevenamckay.com

“The former wrestler wondered despondently where he would eventually end up in the world. Would he ever find something to bring meaning to his life? Or was he destined to flit from one menial, depressing, poorly paid job to another until he expired, too old, or drunk, to move, in a pile of human waste in a place like Shitbrook Street?”

Blurb

When a frightened young outlaw joins a gang of violent criminals their names – against a backdrop of death, dishonour, brotherhood, and love – will become legend. 

ENGLAND 1321 AD 

After viciously assaulting a corrupt but powerful clergyman Robin Hood flees the only home he has ever known in Wakefield, Yorkshire. Becoming a member of a notorious band of outlaws, Hood and his new companions – including John Little and Will Scaflock – hide out in the great forests of Barnsdale, fighting for their very existence as the law hunts them down like animals. When they are betrayed, and their harsh lives become even more unbearable, the band of friends seeks bloody vengeance. Meanwhile, the country is in turmoil, as many of the powerful lords strive to undermine King Edward II’s rule until, inevitably, rebellion becomes a reality and the increasingly deadly yeoman outlaw from Wakefield finds his fate bound up with that of a Hospitaller Knight… 

"Wolf’s Head" brings the brutality, injustice and intensity of life in medieval England vividly to life, and marks the beginning of a thrilling new historical fiction series in the style of Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow.

Personal notes

I kept switching between the audiobook and the e-book. Mainly because this book wasn’t in my reading schedule – well, okay, it was, just not in June – and only had a few days to finish it off, and partly because I needed an audiobook to pass the time at job. I listen about 1 audiobook a month when I spend 1-2 weeks with a database which is otherwise utterly boring and don’t acquire much attention from my part and so my brain can happily immerse itself in something else. I’m a multitasking person, so sue me. Anyway, anyone who knows me a bit is aware of my love for history (I have a degree in history, so go figure) and when I first came across this book I knew I had to read it. Historical fiction, set in England and a Robin Hood retelling at that. It was enough to sold it to me.

I had a piss poor luck with historical fictions earlier this year (go check my review of Goose Hunt and The Jazz Palace) but thankfully things went up with the Harry Stubbs series (reviews of The Elder Ice and Broken Meats), and I also reread (okay, relistened) the first book of my all time historical fiction series, Dissolution from C. J. Sansom (review to come). Thankfully this book is also one of the better ones, so my dearly loved history didn’t ditched me yet. Phew. Okay, enough babbling, let’s move on the reason we are all here now.

Review

First of all, those who haven’t heard about Robin Hood, please raise your hands! … No one? You sure? Okay, let’s move on then.

I won’t waste your time introducing you the characters, because, let’s face it, there is no one who never heard about the outlaws who were something like folktale heroes, constantly making a fool of nobles, robbing money and food so they could stay alive, but also to give back something to the villagers. Just search for his name on Goodreads and will find a shit ton of books about him. Those who are interested in England’s history and write historical fiction/fantasy, sure as hell will end up writing a book about him. We Hungarians also have an author who published a book about him, aimed for youngsters. Which happened to be one of my favorite reads in grade school along with The Three Musketeers by Dumas and Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Gárdonyi Géza. All historical fictions. No wonder I ended up with a history major in University. And before I go into details, I’ll be honest, I haven’t read any other Robin Hood books apart from the one mentioned, so I have no comparison. Why it never occurred to me until now to read books like this, I’ve no idea.

The book starts with Robin, being 17, a lively young man madly in love with Matilda (the first surprise for those who are familiar with the several legends surrounding Robin Hood), living in Wakefield with his best friend Much. When the Prior of Lewes appears on the May Day celebration things quickly turn bad for our protagonist. Trying to defend Matilda, Robin ends up beating the prior and his companions, thus has to leave the village and seek refuge in the Barnsdale Forest. Not having any other choice, he decides to join another folktale hero, Adam Bell’s gang of outlaws or Wolf’s Heads – by the way we never learn why they are called that – where he finds unexpected friends and companions. Such as Will Scaflock or Will Scarlet, Little John and Friar Tuck. During the book we learn some things about the past of Will and Tuck, the former’s play an important part in the story too.

Meanwhile, England is about to being torn into two parties. The date is 1321, and the Earl of Lancester tries to ally himself with as much noble as possible to get the attention of King Edward II, who is under the influence of the Dispensers and neglecting the needs of his subjects. Sir Richard, lord and Hospitaller also joins him after an injustice is being done to his son. He also has a brief meeting with Robin and his gang and they end up helping each other out, while the prior and the Sheriff of Nottingham try their hardest to bring Robin and the others out of the picture.

The book focuses on Robin Hood and his adventures, which sometimes feels like different tales put together into one story. As the synopsis shows, McKay choose to put his story in Yorkshire, more accurately in Barnsdale Forest instead of the well known Sherwood forest. Which at first is strange and needs some getting used to – as well as Matilda’s name – but after a while you forget about it. And while the Sheriff of Nottingham also plays a prominent part in the story, he is not the villain per se. But then, there is not really one big villain here against whom our friends fight for. There is the prior and the sheriff of course and Lord de Bray as well. The other change – at least for those who grew up on the Robin Hood stories present in the pop culture – is that the events take place in the 1320’s, under the reign of King Edward II, instead of Richard I and his brother John we all used love to hate. On one hand this is a risky move, because most people grew up hearing those tales. On the other we can hardly blame him for putting a new twist on the old story. Besides there are several versions of Robin’s tales, so it’s up to him to choose whatever version he feels like. Actually it is kind of refreshing too. The background stories of Will and Tuck are especially interesting and put a new light on both characters. Will turned out to be my favorite character despite me not liking him at the beginning. His character came a long way during the book and showed such depths the readers wouldn’t have expected. The others felt a bit 2 dimensional – another exceptions are Friar Truck and Adam Bell – hence the lower actual rating.

The bits about Lancester’s attempt of opposing the king although interesting, didn’t really added much to the story – except historical background, that is – , and sometimes just broke the flow. Probably, if there would be more of these scenes, then that would have given a wider insight of the state of England at the time. Like that small snippet about the Templars’ fall, which gave depth to one of the character’s background as well as a glimpse into real historical events.  The balance between the two storyline is a bit off, but this and the few minor editing issues this book has can be easily corrected.

Since I half listened to the Audiobook, let me mention what a good job Nick Ellsworth did with narrating. His voice has an interesting lilting to it, but after a while you get used to it and forget about it. He reads in a way that even non-english speakers like myself can easily understand.

Wolf’s Head is an action packed, sometimes bloody and brutal historical fiction, which puts a twist to the famous legend of Robin Hood. As it is a first book, it’s not perfect, but a very enjoyable read nonetheless. It brought back my childhood memories, mixed it with my adult self’s love for english history and gritty elements, and pretty much blew my mind. Besides making me a dirty mouthed lunatic in the morning commute, on a tram full of people. Which means you should absolutely check it out if you are into this kind of stuff!

 

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