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Summary: Will Scarlet is on the run from her past. That’s why she disguises herself as a boy and wound up becoming a part of Robin of Locksley’s little band of outlaws. Scarlet’s guilt and inner sense of justice leads her to help keep the local villagers alive under the brutal rule of the sheriff of Nottingham, even if she does have to steal and fight to do it. As the stakes rise and the ruthless Guy of Gisbourne gets involved, blood will be spilled and loyalty will be tested.
Review: What can I say? I’m a sucker for all things Robin Hood. And Will Scarlet reimagined as a girl? Count me in.
This novel felt unique in a number of ways. It clipped along at a fast past that went hand-in-hand with Scarlet’s no-nonsense tone of voice, and though it does built to somewhat of a climax, the format felt more cyclical than linear. It’s like a chess game where the Nottingham authorities and the forest outlaws take turns trading blows and setting traps. The pace felt pretty breathless, with the heroes unable to go five minutes without getting into some sort of scrape.
As for the “heroes” themselves, I have mixed feelings about them. There’s a larger cast of villagers, but the novel focuses pretty narrowly on the small band of outlaws: Robin, Scarlet, John Little, and Much (although he sometimes feels a bit like the “Ringo” of the group and gets the short end of the stick in terms of characterization). All four have altruistic motives, but their past experiences have left them pretty damaged and tortured (this is medieval England so that means physically as well as emotionally). This means the relationships they form to each other aren’t always the healthiest, which is realistic but also becomes frustrating to the reader when they fight with and yell at each other frequently.
Scarlet’s a really fascinating narrator. In many ways, she reminded me of Eponine from Les Miserables in that she’s very tough and stubbornly self-reliant to a fault, yet incredibly vulnerable as well. (In fact, her voice sounded exactly like Frances Ruffelle‘s in my head. Or it would if Scarlet didn’t have to pass as a convincing boy for the bulk of the novel). She was definitely a heroine I could root for, but her low self -worth, tendency to run off and sulk, and inability to go five minutes without fighting with one of the boys were starting to drive me nuts by the end of the book. I appreciated her ferocity in combat, but I thought her ability to endure pain bordered on superhuman.
As for the boys: Robin is likeable enough and a good leader, though haunted by his time fighting in King Richard’s Crusade. He seems to understand Scarlet better than anyone, but she thinks she doesn’t deserve him. John is quite a womanizer, yet has started to pursue Scarlet. Unfortunately, this is the making for a love triangle that inspired a bit of hair-pulling on my part. I didn’t doubt for an instant that I knew how it would all turn out; however, the interactions of the three got repetitious without really going anywhere. It’s enough to make the reader almost want Scarlet to end up with sweet little Much. In addition, though the novel makes a point about how badly women were treated in this time and place, it bothered me to see these attitudes surface to a small extent in the behavior of both John and Robin towards Scarlet, which was a turn-off.
In spite of all this, I really did enjoy Scarlet. It was hard to put down, and the characters and scenarios felt familiar yet original at the same time. Showing just a “slice of life” in the outlaws’ experiences, the book doesn’t so much end as just stop, so I would definitely be up for a sequel.
In short: Though the character relationships are slightly problematic at times, Scarlet is still an exciting read that anyone who is a fan of Robin Hood will want to try.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.
Something similar: My all-time favorite Robin Hood book is still Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood. It has a much slower, more leisurely pace than Scarlet, with a slightly neurotic Robin who isn’t even all that great of an archer. It still has a lot of tension and it’s loaded with subtly, dry humor that I appreciate anew everytime I re-read it. For another book about a clever thief who is also an unreliable narrator, try Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, which is set in a sort of fantasy version of Greece.
Cover & Title: I can’t think of a better title, and the cover is gorgeous. The artist captured Scarlet’s “moonstone” eyes and the scar on her cheek, even if she looks far too pretty to pass for a boy.
Where I got the book: Shelves of the local library.