Author: A.C. Gaughen
Genre: historical fiction, mythic fiction, young-adult
Pages: 304 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Many readers know the tale of Robin Hood, but they will be swept away by this new version full of action, secrets, and romance.
Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.
It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.
The famous "Will Scarlet" as a girl - I was hooked from the moment I read the synopsis alone on GoodReads. There's a lot to enjoy in this rather short foray into the woods of Sherwood and the realm of the Lionheart, like an enveloping atmosphere from the start and also a lot to lament as well, like overdone and superfluous elements for the book. The good does outweigh the bad in this inventive tale and there is thankfully much to be enjoyed in this fresh and interesting retelling of a beloved and popular legend. A little more length and an editor with a big red pen would've gone a long way to establishing a firmer debut, but new author Gaughen has a unique gem of which to be proud with Scarlet.
The dialect/accent that Scarlet uses is going to be a big deal with this book - it comes off as suitably 'common' but its veracity of use is much in questions. It's certainly distinct, and it works for the most part with Scarlet's persona. Readers will either go with the flow from the outset or hate it egregiously immediately, is my personal prediction. I found myself not minding too much in the beginning, but the repeated and abundant misuses of correct verb tenses did get a bit wearying after two hundred pages, especially when only Scarlet talks that way. Though imperfect, the stylized way of speaking does make for a striking style that A.C. Gaughen uses quite well to illustrate her sense of place - the words do call to mind medieval England, correct or incorrect as the assumption may be. Take this paragraph for instance (from the ARC so small changes might be made before final copies are printed):
"Sherwood were the king's forest, a protected land meant to be his hunting grounds. But England were a country without a king. King Richard, him they called the Lionheart, had taken his lion paws over to the Holy Land. He were off fighting infidels while his people -- my people -- starved. There would be no game left for hunting when he returned. 'Stead of deer, England would be full up of wolves, the biggest among them Prince John."
See? The author's style is very visually striking, all the while setting the scene for the biggest conflict in the novel - the outlaws against the hated thief taker, Guy of Gisbourne (who's characterization is subject to the same abuses of grammar as the rest of the novel: "He were wrapped in violence like it were clothes." p 82, ARC).
Scarlet, though the main character, is inscrutable and shadowy for most of the book - even though it's all from her perspective. From her first sentence about being "Rob's secret" and a "shadow in dark places", one immediately gets the impression that backstage, unseen and unknown are where she prefers to be (as well as touch of foreshadowing about Mr. Robin Hood's relationship to her). As is obvious from her marauding as a man, Scarlet is a woman with much to hide and who wants to be hidden herself. Though a prickly woman (I'm saying some girls slap, but I have knives." p. 220, ARC) , and someone who had broken Four Commandments before a hundred pages, Scar is surprisingly relate-able despite her time and mystery. Scarlet's voice, though marred by her word choices, is strong and clear. Scarlet's backstory and personal history are one of the main components of the plot: Just who is she? How and why did she end up with Robin Hood? I thoroughly appreciated the author's steady hand with the characterization of this prickly woman; her life isn't infodumped expediently and easily, but rather allowed to unfold slowly, with subtle allusions and dialogue for the greatest dramatic impact. I have to say, I absolutely did NOT call the big twist concerned with "Will Scarlet" (outside of the whole woman-parading-as-a-man thing).
This is a retelling, and the bare bones we all know and love about Robin Hood are represented here. Present and account for: Friar Tuck, Little John though here he's called John Little, Much the Miller's Son, Guy of Gisbourne, The Sheriff of Nottingham and that mythic wood, Sherwood Forest. There are differences in the roles these characters are perpetually cast as: Friar Tuck is a drunk innkeeper, Will has a facility with knives instead of swords and is obviously, a woman. Another change to chemistry of the cast: the unnecessary inclusion of a love-triangle between three of the band. Not only does it bring out a side to Robin that I vehemently disliked (the "whore" comment seemed out-of-proportion to the action and just unlike the Robin of this story), but it's just superfluous. Scarlet's attraction to Rob is obvious from the start; her 'interest' slight as it may be, in John Little doesn't feel authentic or relevant to the plot. It adds no forward momentum, doesn't reveal anything noteworthy about any of the characters and is just plain annoying. I wanted to read about the band's escapades - not about John Little's unrequited and too forceful feelings for Scarlet. All the triangle accomplished in the end was a marked increase in my level of antipathy for the character of John Little - Robin himself emerges as the better man easily.
Gaughen's version of the disenfranchised noble is very similar to the tract he's kept for centuries. Haunted by his actions during the Crusade with Richard I of England, betrayed by his regent Prince John in his absence, Robin is still a man who thinks of the people. Though his earlship confiscated, his duty to his people is his touchstone; it is what keeps him steady in a rocked world. His motivation to help his beleagured subjects is both noble and brings trouble - without his refusal to abandon the peasants of Huntingdon, Guy of Gisbourne would not have come out of London. I also loved Rob for Scarlet - his love for her obvious, even if she is too stupid to see or too self-loathing to believe, and their chemistry is palpable. They are two broken people, Robin because of the Crusades and Scarlet for her past, that both fit well together and have actual spark between them.
Though the door is firmly closed on the main plotline of the novel revolving around Gisbourne, the author leaves a delicious amount of wiggle room in the ending for several characters. Though this is over, it is not final. I hope the author continues the story begun here - not only is 304 pages a short book for such invigorating reading, but there's plenty of life left in this old legend for Gaughen to give it another go. This is one novel I'd love to see spun into a series.