Hood is the first book in the new “King Raven” trilogy by Stephen Lawhead. Scarlet, the second book in the series, is also available, but the concluding volume Tuck has not yet been released. Much like the tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood is a story that has evolved over the years and Lawhead wanted to tell the tale set during the time it seems to have first appeared. Thus Hood begins a version of the classic legend set in 1093 during the reign of William II.
Bran, the irresponsible Welsh prince of Elfael, is more interested in charming women than in duty and politics. Because of this, he is trying to steal a kiss from a young lady when he should have been riding to Lundein with his father’s war party to swear fealty to William II. Bran heads out to catch up with the warriors and meets his friend Iwan, riding to Elfael as quickly as he can with terrible news. Bran’s father and the rest of his men were killed by Normans, and King William II has given these invaders the land of Elfael.
Bran and Iwan warn the people who take refuge at a nearby monastery. The young prince believes he should flee to the north, but the monk Ffreol and Iwan convince Bran that they must go to King William II and attempt to get their land back. The three journey to the capital where they are told that Elfael is theirs again for the price of 600 marks, which is about 3 times as much money as the small Welsh kingdom has in its treasury. Regaining their homeland seems hopeless at first, but the prince and his friends devise a plan to purchase it using the conqueror’s own funds.
Although part of the plot contains tales of a giant raven that haunts the forest and Celtic mythology, this novel falls more into the category of historical fiction than fantasy. Magic does not play a key role in this book. The setting is the real world and many of the events, such as the Norman invasion of Britain and the reign of King William II, actually happened.
Hood definitely feels like the first novel in a series since most of the novel feels like it is setting up the story and the pace does not seem to pick up until the end. The first part of the book describes the death of Bran’s parents and the turmoil taking place in England and much of the middle is dedicated to detailing Bran’s recovery from an injury and training for leadership. Bran’s preparation for responsibility was drawn out and I did get bored reading about Bran wandering around the woods making long bows. Fortunately this part of the book was interspersed with the political rivalry of the count who invaded Elfael and the baron who would like the land for himself, which I found far more interesting.
The prose was neither elaborate nor florid but crisp and to the point. It was descriptive at times, but never so detailed that it was drawn out and dull.
The characters have potential to be interesting in later volumes, but Bran was the only one who really developed in this book as he went from a selfish young man to a leader. The Normans seemed like pure villains without any good qualities, but they were not the cackling, monologuing type of bad guy either – they appeared to be doing their job as citizens of a conquering country while doing their best to advance their own interests. Count de Braose was up front about not caring about the people, and to counteract this, his enemy Baron de Neufmarche put on a false front to get into the good graces of the Welsh people. Tyrannical rulers throughout history have failed to address the needs of the people unless it suits their own ends, particularly if the commoners are not from the same country. Because of this, even though they were not particularly gray characters with lots of depth, the “villains” did not seem like unrealistic characters either.
“King Raven” shares many similarities with Lawhead’s “Pendragon Cycle”, which told the story of King Arthur. It is a somewhat twisted version of a familiar legend with a Celtic backdrop, and Bran’s teacher Angharad appears to have a similar role to Myrddin (Merlin). The older series is much more easily recognizable as the tale of King Arthur than at least the first book of “King Raven” is as Robin Hood, however.
Hood is an entertaining take on the tale of the rogue who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, although it does suffer from a slow middle and the feeling that it mainly exists to set up a larger story. The end was where it began to come together, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next installment of this series.