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.

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.