Review: Scarlet

When Will Scarlet’s thane was exiled to Daneland, the king took his land. Deprived of his home, and his living, and his community, Will sought refuge in the forest. But the English crown laid claim to the forests, too. After being left hungry when the king destroyed his old home, Will was forbidden under penalty of death to satisfy his hunger with the king’s deer.

This is what is called being “between a rock and a hard place”.

Hearing rumors of the Raven Hood, Will traveled to Wales to find him. And there, in the ancient forest, Will Scarlet joined the band of outcasts who lived by capital offenses against the crown.

This is what is called “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.

Scarlet is the second book of the King Raven Trilogy, following Hood and upping the overall quality of the series. Despite my disappointment with Hood, I was interested enough to open the second book. It began in the first person, as Will Scarlet gave his confession to a priest in a dungeon. By the end of the first chapter, I was ready to read the book all 450 pages through.

The moments in the dungeon were written in present tense. When Will told his story, the tense became past. Will’s account was interspersed with chapters in the third person, relating things he did not know. This is not an ideal story structure, and it will inevitably be confusing to some readers. But ultimately it worked.

And it gave us Will’s narrative. The first-person style was remarkably well-done, with a distinct and appropriate tone. Will Scarlet shines brightly through, a sympathetic and charming character. He was at once cheerful and fatalistic, once saying, “Well, that’s Will Scarlet for you – doomed beginning and end. Oh, but shed him no tears – he had himself a grand time between.”

Through Will Scarlet the King Raven Trilogy gets, at last, a measure of the merriness of the Robin Hood legend. Bran himself is more likable than in the book called after his name. This is partially because he is seen, for much of the book, from Will’s viewpoint – with that perspective and that distance. But it is also because Bran, having finally taken up his responsibility, shows a better side. A flawed hero he may be – but a hero.

The villains, too, come into their own. Count Falkes, who never had the heart to be a truly great villain, is increasingly supplanted by worse men. The sheriff, here introduced, is a far more vicious and more dangerous enemy.

The deep historical milieu remains the same. Scarlet‘s pace is quicker and its plot more interesting than Hood‘s. The story drooped a little in the third act, but it ended in a powerfully-done cliffhanger.

Religion is a very present element of Scarlet, as it was of that time and place. In the King Raven Trilogy, as in old Robin Hood ballads, God is invoked by villains and heroes alike. Stephen Lawhead is, I think, realistic in writing a bishop concerned only with worldly wealth and power. Yet there is genuine religion in the book, and help as well as harm in the church.

Scarlet is more history than myth; at the same time, a mystical element roosts in unexpected corners of the story. This is not so much a re-telling of the Robin Hood story as a transformation of it. Complex, beautifully written, and filled to the brim, Scarlet is a worthwhile read.

CSFF Blog Tour: Creative License

Yesterday I wrote that, in Karyn Henley’s Angelaeon Circle, God is not really God and the angels are not really angels. Chawna Schroeder and Julie Bihn wrote similar criticisms, going into Scripture to show the difference between Karyn Henley’s angels and God’s.

Becky Miller wrote that the angels in the Angelaeon Circle are invented beings who should not be taken as representative of true angels. She also pointed out that the debate about which fantasy novels are Christian includes works as respected as Lord of the Rings.

We all would agree that, in telling and enjoying stories, Christians have broad creative license. New worlds with strange races and different natural laws – that is permitted. The question is this: What sort of creative license do we have in portraying God and angels in these speculative worlds?

I will take the question regarding God first, because it is more important and also easier to answer. Whenever Christians write of God – even in fantasy worlds – everything they write must be true. There’s enough room in this universe to imagine a thousand different planets and races, but there is not room enough to imagine a different God.

I don’t think that every Christian fantasy has to bring God into the picture. But if any does, it must be true to Scripture. Silence is better than a false portrayal. In the Angelaeon Circle, everyone acknowledges that the Most High exists – and usually acts as if it doesn’t matter. Even the angels rarely take him into account. A story like Lord of the Rings, where the heroes don’t talk about God, is more Christian than a story where the heroes treat Him as negligible.

As for the angels, I wouldn’t lay down an absolute principle there. Some reviewers have been bothered by Karyn Henley’s unbiblical angels, some haven’t been, and I understand and respect both positions. Each to his own conscience and his own judgment.

But it might clarify things if writers would decide at the beginning whether they really want angels. Do they want holy, celestial beings who do not marry, die, or procreate? If the answer is yes, then they should portray angels as they are.

If the answer is no, and what they really want is beings who are only sort of like angels, then they should invent a new race and a name for them to go by. After all, if it doesn’t walk like a duck, and it doesn’t quack like a duck, and it doesn’t look like a duck – why call it a duck?

CSFF Blog Tour: Eye of the Sword

Trevin, newly made a comain for the king, was sent on a quest to find allies for the kingdom. And the missing comains. And an oracle. And a magical harp. And himself.

He quickly got sidetracked into the right direction. On a ranging search, from the mountains to the edge of the sea, he found more than he would have dreamed.

In Eye of the Sword, Karyn Henley irons out many of the wrinkles of the preceding book. The story is more focused, the characters steadier in their objectives – and more analytical in their actions.

The writing is smooth, the style pleasing. Other successes of the first book hold up: The plot moves at a good pace, the characters are individual and real. Although small in scope – no place seems hard to get to – the world is varied and rich.

Eye of the Sword suffered a little from repetition. You can only describe a character as husky so many times, especially in a 233-page book. What is more important, the “I am your father” card is overplayed in this series. Karyn Henley’s uses are interesting and emotionally compelling, but this sort of thing should not be done often even when it is done well. This is the only book I have ever read where the entire main cast could be put on the same family tree.

The Angelaeon Circle is billed Christian fantasy, and the influence of Christianity may be felt. But it has also the feel of a kind of cleansed pagan mythology. The old gods are dethroned and tamed; now servants of the Most High, they’re generally good and go under the name “angel”.

Which they aren’t. They wander about, well-meaning but flawed, exercising their special powers and ruling their special domains, mating with humans and raising superpowered offspring. Also, they die. And they can’t get back to heaven without their stairway.

But the troubling thing is not that the angels are not really angels. It’s that God is not really God. The novels are firmly monotheistic, but the monotheism itself strikes one discordant note after another.

A few stray mentions are thrown to the Most High, but for all that it matters to the story or the characters, he might as well not exist. Even the priests and priestesses show only rote devotion. Neither humans nor angels waste much thought or emotion on their creator.

In their defense, he doesn’t appear to waste much on them, either. The Most High seems distant, almost cold. He may have created that world, but he has largely signed off the running of it. There is a character called Windweaver, an angel who directs the winds, and I enjoyed him. But our God doesn’t appoint a Windweaver; He is the Windweaver. He feeds the birds, and He clothes the grass of the fields.

Nor is it only winds and oceans that the Most High leaves to angels. He even lets them figure out what to do with souls that are trapped on earth after the stairway to heaven is destroyed.

I recall two serious discussions of the Most High in the series. In the first – written in Breath of Angel – Melaia asks why the Most High doesn’t intervene. She is told: “What human will destroyed, human will must restore.”

The justice of that cannot be denied. Yet think of what our religion would be if God had that attitude toward us. “You made this mess. You clean it up.”

In the second discussion, this one in Eye of Angel, the Most High is called the “father-mother of the universe”. I don’t know what, exactly, Karyn Henley meant by that. But the formulation is unquestionably pagan.

And it is reinforced by two unfortunate coincidences. “The Most High” is gender-neutral – and I cannot recall anyone in the novels referring to the Most High as “he” or “him”. Furthermore, the Most High is served by priestesses in temples – another thing that carries the taste of paganism. The God we call Father chose only priests to serve in His temple. But it makes sense that the “father-mother of the universe” should have priestesses, too.

I have dwelt a long time on this, but it was only a small element in the novels. It can be ignored; it can even be missed. I am also bound to note that the wrongful impression is created in large part by omission. Karyn Henley can, if she chooses, reverse it in succeeding books.

It is only fair, after all this, to stress the good in Eye of the Sword. As a story it was well-crafted, and it has the proper fascination of the genre. If the mythology is as much pagan as Christian – that is for each reader to weigh according to his own judgment.

And now, for further elucidation and for buying opportunity, we have the tour links:

Eye of the Sword on Amazon;

Karyn Henley’s website,


and Facebook page;

And, always last but never least, the CSFF reviewers:

Julie Bihn
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Jackie Castle
Brenda Castro
Jeff Chapman
Theresa Dunlap
Cynthia Dyer
Victor Gentile
Ryan Heart
Janeen Ippolito
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Karen McSpadden
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Anna Mittower
Mirriam Neal
Faye Oygard
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Kathleen Smith
Donna Swanson
Jessica Thomas
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

And before I forget:

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour: Breath of Angel

It is one thing to wonder if angles are real; it is another to wonder if you should trust them.  And it is something else entirely to wonder if you are an angel.

Karyn Henley’s Breath of Angel begins in a temple, where everything is clear and the world is limited. When the novice priestess Melaia is drawn out, she discovers that certainty is elusive and the truth is wild – even the truth about herself.

The world of Breath of Angel is painted with precision, with colors deep and bright. It feels tangible, each part crafted individually. Henley has populated it with all sorts of creatures – some wonderful, some strange, and some horrible.

The characters are also varied, also well-drawn. Melaia herself stands out – a more memorable and more flawed heroine than fantasy usually gives. The plot feels a bit flighty – without steady objectives, dangerous turns in the story given no meaning – but it keeps you entertained beginning to end.

Artistically, the book had two main errors. For the first, Karyn Henley plunged into the story without laying the groundwork. Halfway into the book, she was still springing basic facts on the readers. The first revelations, and some of the later ones, came without proper build-up.

The second error is that characters repeatedly did things that made no sense. It makes no sense that the villain should waltz in and proclaim his secret identity to four young girls; it makes no sense that the heroes set off on dangerous missions without considering the details. (“Say, does anybody know where, in this large building full of hostile persons, we need to go?”)

On the moral side, the tactic of dressing like a “street woman” to slip past guards was wrong on several levels.

These missteps dampen the novel, yet it remains enjoyable. Breath of Angel weaves a vivid world and a rich mythology, in a story that never stops.

Note: Breath of Angel is Book One in the Angelaeon Cirlce; Book Two, Eye of the Sword, is the featured book of this month’s CSFF blog tour, and I hope to review it tomorrow.

More Than a Thief

The legend of Robin Hood is so old no one knows how old it is. Nearly a thousand years is a good, if imprecise, guess. Over the years, and all the stories, Robin changed.

First a yeoman, then elevated to a dispossessed aristocrat; once living under King Edward, then firmly and far more famously attached to Prince John and Richard the Lion Heart; sometimes more of a scoundrel, sometimes more of a hero; at one time primarily concerned with his own wild and merry life, and at another mainly concerned with defending the oppressed and ransoming the rightful king.

Although it’s fallen out of most modern re-tellings, Robin Hood used to be a solidly religious man. True, he robbed churchmen, but he robbed them because they were rich. He attended Mass at the risk of his neck – going into Nottingham, or holding a secret Mass in the greenwood and then refusing to flee when the sheriff came hot on his trail.

In one of the earliest stories Robin vowed himself a “true Christian man”. In part this was the ingrained forms of that day, and even the villains would swear by “the God that died”. Yet he was meant to hold it truly. One of the oldest ballads told that every day, before he would eat, Robin heard three Masses:

The one in the worshyp of the fader,
The other of the holy goost,
The thyrde was of our dere lady,
That he loved of all other moste.

Robyn loved our dere lady;
For doute of dedely synne,
Wolde he never do company harme
That ony woman was ynne.

G. K. Chesterton, at the beginning of his own poem about Robin Hood, quoted a translation of this last stanza:

Robin loved Our Dear Lady
And for doubt of deadly sin
Would never hurt a company
That any woman was in.

Another ancient song repeats the same sentiment:

Roben Hood was the yemans name,
That was boyt corteys and fre;
For the loffe of owr ladey,
All wemen werschep he.

In the Robin Hood movie starring Errol Flynn, the chivalrous respect for women lives on, but the reverence for Mary, from which it came, is lost.

But whatever changes were ever made to the legend of Robin Hood, some things are always the same. His boldness and his archery are constant through centuries of story-telling. More vitally, Robin Hood is always a rebel – whether against good authority or bad, or only for his own free life in the greenwood. His robbery is another inalterable element of the tale.

And despite that, there is a strain of goodness in Robin Hood that is never quite chased out. In some of the stories Robin’s nobility was little more than an ember in the ashes, in others it was a blazing fire ; in all of them you knew he was more than a common thief.

And all this was changeless because it, and not King Edward or King Richard or any social position, made Robin Hood himself.

Review: Hood

hoodThere have been many stories of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, with his Merry Men and his noble thievery. But I would venture that there has been only one story of Robin Hood in Wales, with his flock and his raven hood.

In Hood, Stephen Lawhead tells again the story of Robin Hood. Initially, you couldn’t tell. Hood begins as Bran, prince of a small kingdom in Wales. In England, William the Red was king – and reaching out his hand to gather all of Wales into his kingdom.

Lawhead roots and grows his story in history. He doesn’t only borrow a few names, a few circumstances – he recreates a whole time. Every part is multidimensional – the villages of England and the forests of Wales, the strange Ffreinc and the wild Welsh, the grasping barons and the Church with its ancient, holy rituals and slow rot.

Hood is rich – rich in detail, rich in language. The story unfolds at a pace in keeping with Lawhead’s gradual unveiling of his world in all its texture and layers. Political intrigue courses through the whole novel as powerful men jockey to pluck Wales for their own basket.

And behind it, older and so much deeper, ancient Britain – the Britain of Arthur Pendragon – stirs in the secret heart of the forest. It touches Bran, urging him on as he becomes Hood – becomes a hero.

It’s a long journey, and by the end of the book, it’s still not complete. Despite some glimmerings of nobility, Bran is – I’ll be blunt – a jerk. There were times when I rooted for him to choose the right thing. There were times I wanted to say, “Let him lose. Who cares?”

To have a lousy person for a protagonist is unbearable only when the author doesn’t seem aware that his hero is rotten. Stephen Lawhead, to his credit, makes it a point of Bran’s arc that he must learn to care for others – not in emotion, but in deed. I don’t complain about a main character who must learn to be good on his way to being the hero.

But if that is what a writer chooses to do, he must build up characters his readers can like. And such characters do exist in Hood. Lawhead’s fault is that he did not invest enough in them to overcome the dearth of likeability in his main cast.

The book has other flaws – principal among them some disturbing moments.

The odd thing is this: Both Hood‘s merits and its faults – its slow, grand sweep, its historical intricacy, its vision of legends, the gradual unfolding and the morbid moments, the unlikeability of Bran – all of it makes Hood seem not, well, Robin Hood.

Remember the Robin Hood stories? Sometimes he was a rogue, sometimes he was nearly hung, but he usually gave the impression of being on an interrupted lark. His men were a colorful crew – literally so, in the case of Will Scarlet; they were on a lark, too. Stealing from the rich to feed the poor had its merry side. Even the villains were on a chase, even if it was a wild-goose chase; they may have been bad hunters, but they were hunters. It was fun.

In Hood, it’s not fun anymore. The villains are not hunters, good or bad; they’re politicians. The Merry Men aren’t very merry; Bran’s way of robbing the rich is remarkably grim.

I don‘t want to appear too harsh. Hood had its merits – even as a story of Robin Hood. It was interesting to see Robin Hood becoming instead of just being, interesting to see Stephen Lawhead transform the old stories. But if we’re talking about versions of Robin Hood, I prefer Disney’s. That was fun.