Insurrection by Robyn Young

Insurrection - Robyn Young Insurrection is the first in a trilogy telling the story of Robert the Bruce, who was King of Scotland in the 14th century. The second book, Renegade is available now and the third, Kingdom, will be out this summer. In this first novel, beginning in 1286, we meet Robert as a young boy in a Scotland torn apart by the sudden and unexpected death of King Alexander III. The King has died without a male heir, leaving the succession to the throne undecided. The Bruces believe they have a strong claim, but they face competition from their enemies, John Balliol and the Comyns.

In England, meanwhile, King Edward I is forming his own plans for Scotland. Beginning a search for four ancient relics that will enable Merlin’s Last Prophecy to be fulfilled, Edward enlists the help of a group of young noblemen known as the Knights of the Dragon. When Robert, sent to England to restore his family’s reputation, is approached by the Knights, he must decide exactly where his loyalties and ambitions lie.

Insurrection is exactly the sort of historical fiction I love. As someone who reads a lot of historical novels I often find that they either focus too much on romance and court intrigue or are too action-packed with one long battle scene after another. I had neither problem with this book; I found it to be a fascinating, atmospheric tale of kings and knights, witches and soldiers, treachery, murder and war. The descriptive writing is wonderful and the battles (yes, there are a few) are well written and easy to follow. I admit that my heart sank when I discovered this was yet another book with an ‘ancient prophecy’ storyline, but I needn’t have worried because it is only one small part of the plot and I thought it actually felt quite plausible as it’s true that Edward I really did have a fascination with Arthurian legend.

Robert the Bruce is a name I’ve always been intrigued by without really knowing much about him. I have a memory from years ago of going out with my parents one Sunday afternoon on what my dad always called ‘an aimless drive’ and ending up in Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland where we noticed a sign pointing to ‘Robert the Bruce’s Cave’ – the cave where Robert supposedly went into hiding from Edward I in 1306 and was famously inspired by a spider weaving its web. Not one of the most exciting places I’ve ever visited (there wasn’t even a spider in sight when we went to look inside the cave), but it has stayed in my mind all these years later!

Because I knew so little about Robert and this period of history, I felt that I was really learning a lot from Insurrection. Everything felt accurate and thoroughly researched and although I had to concentrate to keep track of the complex politics and relationships between the characters, I was never bored. At the end of the book there’s a character list, glossary of medieval terms and a chart showing the order of succession to the Scottish throne, all of which I found useful.

Of course, this is a work of fiction rather than non-fiction so there are times when the author doesn’t stick exactly to the known facts. For example, the deaths of Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway may have had more innocent causes than those described in the book. The Knights of the Dragon is also a fictional order, although the men who belong to it really existed. Robyn Young explains some of her choices in her author’s note so that we can see where she has used her imagination to fill in some gaps and provide motivations for the actions of her characters.

I know this book will not suit all tastes in historical fiction (some readers might dislike the inclusion of prophecies and witchcraft or will be disappointed by the lack of significant female characters and the fact that Robert himself is not always easy to like) but I absolutely loved it. I’m looking forward to reading Renegade and Kingdom and also exploring Robyn Young’s earlier trilogy on the Knights Templar.

17 thoughts on “Insurrection by Robyn Young

  1. piningforthewest says:

    I used to live near yet another Bruce’s Cave, in Dumbarton. I think there are lots of them but Robert Bruce did live in nearby Cardross, so that one is a bit more likely. Now I live close to the spot where Alexander III fell of his horse at Kinghorn, this is a photo of a cross which marks the spot.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks for the link to your photo. Robyn Young covers Alexander’s death in this book, but she suggests that it was more than just an accident. I don’t know if there’s any truth in that but it did make the story more interesting!

  2. Nish says:

    This sounds like a very exciting read. I don’t know much about this period of history, so I think it will be informative for me as well.

  3. elainethomp says:

    I’ve read several novels about Robert Bruce, starting with a kid’s historical novel, and a story in a collection we had growing up that was titled something like “Hero Stories”. I find him a fascinating character and his time full of interesting people. I will have to look up this take on his tale, even if my eyes glazed over when you mentioned Merlin’s Last Prophecy.

    I know there’ve been other suggestions in fiction that the Maid of Norway was assassinated – there’s a book on our daughter’s shelf about that. At least one of the biographies of Robert I have read confirms that even at the time rumors floated around about Margaret being either kidnapped, murdered or both, but not enough records survive to tell what could have happened. Except a body was taken back to Norway and accepted by the King as his daughter’s.

    I found Agnes Mure MacKenzie’s biography unusually readable, if dated, since she wrote in the 1930s. But her style is the sort where a comment like (from memory) “They disappeared into the heather – the landscape is commodious for the purpose..” fits right in. She also goes into other questions of who inherits of the time, pointing out that what we see as the obvious choice really wasn’t back in 1280x, summarizing various legal experts of the time who chimed in on the question.

    • Helen says:

      Storylines involving prophecies and ancient relics seem to be very overused in historical fiction these days and usually my eyes glaze over too, but it wasn’t too bad in this case – just one relatively minor aspect of the novel.

      I haven’t read any biographies of Robert yet, though I would like to, having had my interest piqued by reading this book. Agnes Mure MacKenzie’s biography sounds excellent.

      • elainethomp says:

        checking back in to report that I have now read INSURRECTION myself, and on a scale of 1-5, I’d give it a 3.5 or 4. Not a page turner, but a decent read (I rarely give 5s). Caught a few places where Young’s research conflicts with some of the histories on my shelf, but that’s forgivable. Didn’t think the magic & prophecy additions added enough to justify throwing them in when the history is fascinating enough (to me).
        But I did keep putting it down and fishing down a non-fiction from my shelves for the period, which says something, although I’m not sure what, other than lack of deep engagement.

        On the third hand Young is a much better writer than Tranter who also wrote a Bruce trilogy.

        • Helen says:

          Thanks for reporting back, Elaine. I’m glad you didn’t dislike it even if it wasn’t a 5 star book for you. I agree that the story would have been interesting enough without the addition of the prophecy, though it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it might at first.
          I’ve been curious about Nigel Tranter’s trilogy and will probably still try it at some point, but I’m sorry to hear you don’t think his writing is as good as Young’s.

  4. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I think this sounds wonderful – I do like superstition elements in books so I wouldn’t mind that aspect of it. I know absolutely nothing about Robert the Bruce so that intrigues me too. I recently read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and enjoyed learning about Richard III through the novel format.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed The Daughter of Time too. The novel format can be a great way to introduce yourself to new historical figures and periods.

  5. Alex says:

    I’m in the middle of a course on this period at the moment (well, we’re looking at Henry II at the moment, but it isn’t that far away) and this sounds as though it would make a good relaxing read to leaven the studying load. I shall have to see if the library has a copy.

  6. Lisa says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever read much about Robert the Bruce either, and I’m with Anbolyn in enjoying supernatural elements. I’ll also be looking for this (and I do like series, even mini 3-book ones). I had to look twice at the cover, though – it reminded me so much of my copy of Spring of the Ram.

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