Kingdom by Robyn Young

Kingdom After reading Renegade earlier this year (the second of Robyn Young’s three novels on Robert the Bruce), I decided to move quickly on to the third and final volume, Kingdom. Having had my interest piqued in this period of Scottish history, I wanted to read The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter and possibly Nigel Tranter’s Bruce trilogy – but it made sense to finish with this trilogy first to avoid confusion!

Kingdom continues Robert’s story, picking up where Renegade left off. It’s 1306 and Robert Bruce has been crowned King of Scots at last, the other claimants to the throne now either dead or in exile. His dream has finally been achieved – and yet he is still unable to rule in peace. King Edward I of England, who feels he has been betrayed by Robert once too often, is unwilling to give up control of Scotland and sends Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, north at the head of an army. Just a few months after his coronation, Robert is defeated by Valence at Methven Wood and is forced to flee. Eight years of conflict will follow, ending in 1314 at the Battle of Bannockburn – and if you don’t know what happens at Bannockburn, then I’ll leave you to find out for yourself.

I enjoyed Kingdom more than Renegade, but not as much as the first book, Insurrection. This one is a bit too heavy on the battle scenes for my taste, although that’s understandable as the period covered – 1306 to 1314 – was, as I’ve mentioned above, a time of constant conflict, with Robert and his men caught up in a long series of sieges, raids, battles and skirmishes. It’s also quite a sad book, as Robert’s friends and family pay a heavy price to enable Robert to fulfil his destiny. Some face execution, some are imprisoned and others suffer the indignity of being caged like animals. There’s cruelty on both sides, but also compassion and that’s one of the things I’ve noted throughout this trilogy: that the situation is not just portrayed as a case of Scotland good and England bad or vice versa. In fact, Robert faces not just opposition from Edward and the English but also from Scottish rivals and rebels, all of whom ensure that his path to the throne will not be an easy one.

Robert himself is a more sympathetic character in this novel than in the previous two. I found him difficult to warm to before – although that was partly a result of all the treachery and betrayal he was involved in, as well as the lack of time he had to spend with his wife and daughter – but it seems that with his coronation has come a new maturity and sense of responsibility. He is still a slightly bland character, though; I prefer my heroes to be more charismatic! I actually thought some of the other characters were far more interesting than Robert – Alexander Seton, for example, a nobleman from East Lothian who finds his loyalties torn between his country and his family.

I was sorry to see the last of Edward I, who had been the driving force behind much of what happened in the first two and a half books. He is succeeded by his son, Edward II, who lacks his father’s military and leadership skills and is a less worthy opponent for Robert. But while I can’t say that I liked either of the Edwards, the real villain in Kingdom is Aymer de Valence. Apparently, though, the historical Valence was not exactly as he is portrayed in this trilogy; Robyn Young admits in her author’s note that she hasn’t been very fair to him and that he probably doesn’t deserve to be seen as villainous at all. I would like to give a word of praise to Robyn Young for her author’s notes, by the way – they are much more comprehensive than most.

I have enjoyed reading this trilogy, especially as I previously had only a very basic idea of the history involved, which meant that most of Robert Bruce’s story was new and unfamiliar to me. Now I’m looking forward to exploring the period further!

Renegade by Robyn Young

Renegade One of the reasons I love reading historical fiction is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about historical people and events that I might otherwise have gone through life knowing little or nothing about. I would probably never have thought of picking up a non-fiction book on Robert the Bruce, so I’m pleased to have been introduced to him in fictional form in this trilogy of novels by Robyn Young.

The first book, Insurrection, which I read in 2014 and loved, took us through Robert’s early years, explaining the origins of his claim to the Scottish throne, his family’s rivalries with the other contenders, the Balliols and the Comyns, and how he entered the service of Edward I of England after John Balliol was made King of Scotland. I immediately bought a copy of the second book, Renegade, so that I could find out how Robert’s story would continue, but I struggled to get into it and put the book aside until a few weeks ago, when I felt ready to have another attempt.

Renegade begins in the year 1300 with Robert Bruce in exile in Ireland, having betrayed the English and set his sights on taking the throne of Scotland. He intends to search for the Staff of St Malachy, one of four legendary relics, and use it to bargain with King Edward, but things don’t go according to plan and Robert is forced to take a different approach. Swearing loyalty to Edward again, Robert must convince the English that he has turned his back on Scotland once and for all…while secretly biding his time and waiting for a chance to launch his campaign for the Scottish crown.

I think my initial problem with this book was due to the fact that it opens with the search for the Staff of St Malachy and I tend to find ‘hunting for hidden relics’ stories quite tedious and over-used in historical fiction. However, once I got past the first few chapters this storyline was pushed into the background and I started to find the book much more enjoyable (although I still think Insurrection was the better of the two).

Robert himself is still not a character I particularly care for, which is maybe not surprising as his path to the throne is built around treachery and betrayal, but I did have sympathy for the position he found himself in and the difficult choices he had to make. I felt sorry for his friend, Humphrey de Bohun – one of the few characters in the trilogy that I do like – when it became obvious that he too was going to be deceived by Robert for a second time. As in the previous novel, the women in Robert’s life have only small roles to play, but I enjoyed the brief glimpses we are given of his wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, and daughter, Marjorie, and I was sorry that Robert seems to have so little time for them both. Isabel Comyn, Countess of Buchan, is another intriguing female character and I’m hoping we’ll find out what happens to her in the final novel – although I suspect it won’t be good.

Also in this book we learn the fate of William Wallace, who has been lying low since the Battle of Falkirk, trying to avoid being captured. Meanwhile, in England, the ageing King Edward is looking to his son – Edward, Prince of Wales – to carry on his work once he is gone, but the prince seems more interested in his friendship with Piers Gaveston and it is already obvious that he is not going to be the ruler or the military leader his father is. The period in which Renegade is set is a time of conflict and conquest, which means Robyn Young devotes a lot of pages to battles, sieges and ambushes. I’m not really a lover of battle scenes but these were easy enough to follow and understand, as well as being detailed and, as far as I could tell, quite accurate. I was interested to find that the trebuchet Warwolf which Edward is having built during the novel really existed and was used in the Siege of Stirling Castle just as Young describes in the book.

I’m now looking forward to reading the final part of the trilogy, Kingdom, and would like to do so as soon as possible, because Robyn Young has a new novel set in Renaissance Europe coming out later this year.

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.