A new, and somewhat different, take on the Robin Hood legend is always going to grab my attention. Such was the case when I was told about the first book in the Robin Hood Demon’s Bane series which is out this August (the week after the Robin Hood Festival in Sherwood Forest fact fans!). A Dark Mystical tale in which Robin is fighting not just corrupt men – but old sorcery and demons? Yes that sounds like a good start. It was with some anticipation that I first opened Mark of the Black Arrow, written by Debbie Viguié and James R. Tuck. Titan Books certainly were also excited by the concept as at least two further titles in the series are listed for publication in 2016 and 2017 respectively. Was the book the bane of a demon? Or a bane of mine?
AUTHOR: Debbie Viguié and James R. Tuck
PUBLISHER: Titan Books
RRP: £7.99 (Paperback)
A vast darkness is spreading. If left unchecked, it will engulf the world, and so Richard the Lionheart must depart England on a holy mission. In his absence, the safety of the realm is entrusted to his brother, Prince John. When the king departs, black sorcery begins to grip the land, threatening noble and peasant alike. Horrific creatures stalk the forests, yet the violence they commit pales when compared to the atrocities of men. A handful of rebels fight back, but are doomed to fail unless they can find a hero to lead them.
The prologue of the book – set sometime before the main events – was enough to get me interested in the story. By the end of the first page I was on board with this vision of the legend set in an England where magic still survived in the remote areas. By the end of the second chapter (and even more so by the fourth) I had to adjust my thinking in order to not be constantly irritated.
You see, the book reads really well. But I had to move my thinking about the setting from being a mystical eleventh century (a la Robin of Sherwood but MUCH darker and grittier) into being a Dungeons and Dragons setting that happens to use the same names for places and people. You see there are several anachronisms in the first few chapters which threatened to halt my – admittedly pedantic – enjoyment of Mark of the Black Arrow. Little things. Like Tobacco, Marian enjoying a “cup of tea” and Will Scarlet’s rapier. On top of this, there is no sense of the Geography of Britain. Sherwood Forest seems to be between Nottingham (which seems to be the seat of royalty here) and “the docks” that took Richard on the crusade – Dartmouth on the South Coast.
Rather than allow myself to be put off by these idiosyncrasies, I decided to forget “reality” (I am aware of the irony of this when discussing a book about demons!) and imagine a Princess Bride-esque parody of medieval Britain. But so much darker and grittier in tone.
Once I made that mental switch, I found it much easier to settle in and enjoy the characters and events crafted by Viguié and Tuck. The book is excellently written managing to drip feed the reader with enough background about the world and the magic within it without detracting from the steady and inexorable progress of the plot. I have to say, I’m pleased the sequels have been announced already because by the end of the book it is clear that the plot has only just begun and there is far more to come. The tone of the book’s end reminded me of The Empire Strikes Back in many ways, with the heroes of the story being triumphant(ish) but reeling.
Although I enjoyed the writing style on the whole, I did find myself being jarred from the book’s flow at several points. The authors have a tendency to introduce characters mysteriously – which I’m all good with generally. However, in some cases passages begin with “he walked “, “she lay” and such without identifying the character being discussed even though we have already been introduced and are quite familiar with the character. It’s only in context of the passage that they are identified by the reader. It’s no major criticism, but the sudden switch to needing to actively think breaks the flow of the text somewhat.
It may seem that I didn’t enjoy Mark of the Black Arrow, but the criticisms I’ve levelled were made more apparent to me precisely BECAUSE I enjoyed the story so much. The little quirks of storytelling or historical / geographical inconsistencies seemed bigger to me because of how much I enjoyed the story. If I wasn’t such a Robin Hood buff, I don’t think most of these issues would be issues at all and herein lays the crux: I can’t really see the need for the book to be based around the Robin Hood legend at all. Given the level of background building achieved, this could easily be a new fantasy world.
Would I recommend this book? Yes. I’d recommend it to fans of fantasy, adventure and mystical stories. If you are someone who likes Robin Hood in various forms then this is certainly one that is worthy of your attention. Just don’t be a pedant to history or to any single version of the Robin Hood legend. You’ll get so much more out of it.
Robin Hood Demon’s Bane – Mark of the Black Arrow is out now, retailing at £7.99 in the UK and is published by Titan Books.
GS Rating: 4 / 5
GS Reviewer: WedgeDoc