Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Wolf and The Raven

The Wolf and The Raven 
by Steven A. McKay

Scottish author Steven A. McKay first came to my attention with his version of the Robin Hood legend in his excellent and hugely entertaining book Wolf's Head: The Forest Lord, which put a wonderfully refreshing spin on the classic tale by relocating the outlaw from Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire to Barnsdale Forest in Yorkshire and has breathed new life into an old story.
The first book ended with Robin and his band of outlaws being offered the chance to earn a pardon for their crimes which would allow them to reclaim their former lives, a prospect they are all keen to grasp with both hands. The attractions of sleeping rough week after week far from home and loved ones had paled, and with Robin's young wife Matilda (not Maid Marion) heavily pregnant with their first child he is desperate to cast off his mantle of outlaw and return home to create the family life he craves. This book, The Wolf and The Raven, continues that story.

From the very first line the reader is plunged headlong into the carnage and chaos of medieval warfare as Robert and his men (lovers of the legend can rest assured that they will find all the regular characters here: Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, Much the Millar's son et al.) find themselves fighting for their lives in the service of Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster at the battle of Boroughbridge on the 16th of March 1322. The battle, part of a rebellion of various Marcher Lords led by Lancaster against King Edward II, ends in disaster for the rebels and Robin and his band are forced to flee for their lives once more. Back in the forests they are forced to face the realisation that their hoped for pardons are gone like chaff on the wind while Edward II takes his bloody revenge on those who dared challenge him.

That revenge is not only focused on those who were in command but extends to take in the poor serfs and tenants who were forced to take part in war through circumstance and fealty to various landowners. To find and crush these broken men Edward calls on the services of a man who will become Robin's nemesis. His name: Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

The Gisbourne of this book quickly becomes one of the great villains of fiction: a man of twisted desires and dreams who has suffered heartbreak and betrayal himself through the actions of his adulterous wife. Her betrayal coupled with his childhood fascination with the tales of King Arthur have convinced him he is almost the reincarnation of Lancelot and while he is a brutal, ruthless killer you can't help but feel that there is a weird sort of chivalry at the dark heart of everything Gisbourne does. Women are to be protected (despite his wife's adultery) while the enemies of the king can be killed without thought or mercy!

As though the worry of being pursued by this sinister figure, quickly nicknamed The Raven by intimidated commoners for his black clothing and armour, wasn't enough of a problem, Robin and his men also have to deal with other bands of broken men who haunt the forest and create fresh worries for them by preying on the villagers which they depend upon for support and supplies. Indeed Robin has to spend as much time fighting these bands as he does the king's men! Blood is spilled on all sides and not everyone will emerge unscathed from the carnage which ensues. Add to this the constant risk of betrayal and you have a tense atmosphere which pervades the whole book.

One aspect of this book which I particularly enjoyed is that the author allows the scope to spread beyond the narrow confines of the outlaw camp to take in aspects of the lives of both the common folk in the villages and also those who live in castles. Indeed, a large part of the book is taken up with the story of Robin's friend and ally Sir Richard-at-Lees who, along with his loyal sergeant Stephen, become larger characters who bring fresh breadth to the tale. Sir Richard, besieged by Royalist forces, sends Stephen to the head of his Hospitaller order at Clerkenwell for assistance but any notion of loyalty between these knights of the Black Cross is in vain. Foul murder is ordered and carried out only for the killer to be betrayed by the very man who gave the order. Everyone, it becomes clear, is looking after number one and the lives of friends and brothers in arms can be thrown away to protect dark secrets. I have a feeling these dark secrets may play a further role in future books. I hope so as I do want to see the Grand Prior of Clerkenwell on the end of something sharp!

While The Wolf and The Raven can be at times a dark and violent read with language which some may find a little strong, it is not without humour, such as the barber/surgeon in the village of Penyston who may have just invented Buckfast (a drink much beloved by modern day serfs and villiens in today's broken Britain) and Friar Tuck's unusual suggestion on the best way to distract guards on a city gate! The humour is welcome as Robin faces his darkest fears and feels crushed by self doubt after an awful experience at the hands of Gisbourne while prisoner in Nottingham Castle. This is as close as our hero will ever come to absolute despair and self pity, which threatens to drag the entire band of outlaws down into his malaise with him. It is only tough love from old friends which forces Robin to face the future and regain his old heart and courage. He will need both before the end.

The climatic scene of this book is almost Arthurian itself as Robin faces Gisbourne, a self-created modern Black Knight in single combat on a bridge. Blood will be shed and the result is not what most will hope for but does leave things wide open for the story to continue in book three. 

This is a recommended read for all those who enjoy a grown-up tale of adventure and daring-do with an unflinching approach to medieval life and death.

Personally I cannot wait to discover what delights Steven A. McKay will deliver next time.

Steven A. McKay
His second book, The Wolf and the Raven, was released on April 7th, at the London Book Fair where he was part of the Amazon KDP/Createspace/ACX stand. His debut novel, Wolf's Head, was also released the same day as an audiobook.
He was born in 1977, near Glasgow in Scotland. He lives in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a novel.
Historical fiction is his favourite genre, but he also enjoys old science-fiction and some fantasy.
Bernard Cornwell's King Arthur series was the biggest influence in writing Wolf's Head, and now The Wolf and the Raven, but he has also really enjoyed recent books by guys like Ben Kane, Glyn Iliffe, Douglas Jackson and Anthony Riches.
Steven plays lead/acoustic guitars (and occasional bass/vocals) in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

Stuart Laing is the author of the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.

Update: We are thrilled to announce there will be a freebie copy of The Wolf and the Raven to be gifted to a reader whose name is drawn at random. To get your name in the hat, please comment below or at our Facebook thread here. Readers who commented below or at the FB thread before the announcement are automatically entered. 


  1. Thank you for a great review, I don't read much in this genre but this series sounds unmissable.

  2. I love this series and looking forward to the next installment! Great review of a great book!

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  4. Another to add to the TBR list!

  5. Sounds really good!

  6. Ooo hope there is a giveaway in the offing!

  7. There IS a giveaway, so be sure to comment!

  8. Yeah, I'd love to get my hands on this one! It sounds like it is polished with awesomesauce!!!!