Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: SCARLET by A.C. Gaughen

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.
Ooooh, I love me some Robin Hood! No matter how he's portrayed or who's portraying him, he's my guy. Errol Flynn, Cary Elwes, Jonas Armstrong, that cartoon fox, it's all good. Because of his mischievousness, dashing ways, and sense of adventure, Robin tends to steal the show in any adaptation of his story, relegating the other Merry Men to background players.

Not so in this story.

In this version of the standard Robin Hood tale, A.C. Gaughen has changed strapping Will Scarlet, commonly portrayed as Robin's closest friend after Little John and/or his nephew or brother, to a girl. And not just any girl, of course. This Scarlet is a sneak thief, a pickpocket from London with trust issues and a fantastic talent with knives.

I love girls with knives. I also love girls disguised as boys. And people with trust issues who also happen to be protecting a soft underbelly. Yay Scarlet!

Scarlet was clearly queen of this show. Told from her first-person perspective in natty London gutter slang, we follow along with Scarlet through her various trials, and believe me, she has quite a few. First, though she's been with Robin Hood, Little John, and Much (Rob's only 21, so his band isn't quite formed yet), she keeps all three at arm's length as best she can. It's a frustrating situation for all of them, since robbing the rich to feed the poor naturally requires a certain amount of trust in your boys to make sure you're not all hanged.

Gisborne, from "Rowan Hood" cover art
Second, the sheriff decides to bring in a thief taker to stop Robin Hood once and for all. And who is the most famous and most reviled thief catcher in all of Robin Hood lore? Correct! Guy of Gisbourne! Though he lacks his most infamous touch, a cloak made out of horse hide (horse head hood included!), A.C. makes sure to keep Guy at the level of loathsome cruelty and evil that we fans have come to expect from Hood tales.

I mean, this guy is bad. Ba-a-a-ad. Kill-people-because-he-feels-like-it-and-does-it-with-a-grin bad. Which, in turn, is bad for Scarlet and the rest of the gang, seeing that said baddie is hunting them and promises to kill any innocent villager that gets in his way. Actually, it's extra-bad for Scarlet, because she and Gisbourne have unresolved issues to settle of the you-kill-me-unless-I-kill-you-first kind.

The third trial for Scarlet, amid all the rest and despite the aforementioned trust issues, is that she finds herself in the midst of a love triangle, and not the Twilight sort either. See, while most of Nottingham is fooled into thinking that Scarlet's full name is Will Scarlet, the Hood boys all know differently. A group of outlaw boys plus one rather pretty and mysterious girl? You do the math.

There were so many things I enjoyed about this book. I loved how A.C. Gaughen carefully set about reinventing some characters and returning to the roots of others. Scarlet is clearly the largest departure from previous tales, but the other characters were changed as well. For instance, sweet, lovable giant Little John in this story is a lovable, irascible ladies' man. Friar Tuck? Well, he's just Tuck, actually, a bartender who owns a tavern called The Friar Tuck.

The sheriff, on the other hand, veers away from the bumbling wannabe bad guy popularized by the Disney movie and has returned to the all-out, conniving villain that I admired in the BBC America version of Robin Hood. What A.C.'s sheriff does at the climax of the book, for instance... Oof. And Much! I love Much. Too many tales cut him right out or replace him with Alan o' Dale.

Another aspect I appreciated was the down and dirty fighting. They're outlaws fighting baddies - simple scratches won't do. There's a particularly gruesome killing about three-fourths of the way through the book that's pretty epic. I think the Tributes from Hunger Games would have been impressed. And knives! Have I mentioned I love knives?

There are only a few things that bothered me, just tiny things. First, Robin was a bit too good. Laura Lee mentioned the same thing in her review, and I remember scoffing in disbelief. Too good? Robin Hood? Turns out she was right. He's just a bit too noble. Even when he confesses some awful things that he's done, it doesn't tarnish his savior image at all.

Second, Scarlet's speech and her ineffectiveness in response. I loved Scarlet's gutter slang to start with, but after a time, it grated on me just a little. There's a reason why it really bugged me near the end, but I can't share that without getting into spoilers. Also, by "ineffectiveness of response" I mean her wishy-washiness between the guys pursuing her. She tells each to bug off numerous times, but when they don't, the worst she does is sock one in the gut... and then later kisses him. I understand that the tension makes a great story, and I understand that she's interested in both for different reasons, but the woman has knives. She can make them bug off if she wants.

Major Oak, copyrighted by me. All mine.
Lastly, and this may have been something that bothered only me, there were a few historical inconsistencies involving Major Oak. First, no one in Robin Hood's time ever called Major Oak by that title. The tree wasn't dubbed Major Oak until 1790. Google it. My guess is that A.C. chose the name simply so that fans wouldn't sit around going, "A big tree? Doesn't she mean Major Oak? Why isn't she calling it Major Oak?" Second, there's an incident involving Major Oak and Gisbourne that simply did not happen. It involves... shall we say... trauma, trauma that is not indicated in the tree's history. Again, I'm sure it bothers only me, and most others will chalk it up to artistic license, but as someone who has visited the actual Major Oak (see my picture to the right), the little inconsistencies bother me.

It took great self-restraint on my part not to reread Scarlet immediately after finishing. A.C. Gaughen's tale is a fast-paced adventure with several shocks and numerous likable characters. I've already placed the book on my birthday list (a very hard spot to score) and eagerly await a sequel. A.C., if you're reading this, could you please make the sequel about Much? Pleeeeeease?

Points Added For: Excellent reinvention of characters, a really vile pair of villains, exciting fights, Much (I love Much!), an eye-catching cover, a writing style that is both immersive and zippy, A.C.'s talent at describing characters in natural ways (no unnecessary expositions, no out of place descriptions; heck, it's page four before Scarlet even admits that she's a girl!).

Points Subtracted For: A Robin Hood that could use a bit of tarnishing (maybe in the sequel?), Scarlet's inability to make Little John back the freak off, historical inconsistencies, a somewhat confusing backstory for Scarlet.

Good For Fans Of: Rowan Hood (and sequels) by Nancy Springer, I Am Mordred: A Tale From Camelot also by Nancy Springer, The Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce, The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (says Amazon). Bonus recommendation: the BBC America show of Robin Hood. The series is over, so it should all be online now. So. Freaking. Good.

Notes For Parents: Some graphic violence (Hunger Games level graphicness, but less than HG level in frequency), moderate to heavy language (d's, gd's, s's, and b's), frequent clinical talk by Scarlet of her "bits."

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