Scarlet, by A.C. Gaughen (Bloomsbury 2012, YA, 304 pages)
When Robin of Locksley returned from the crusades, he found his lands taken from him, and his people oppressed by the cruel taxes of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Determined to help them, he, along with the three companions that form his band of outlaws, poach and steal to feed the common folk, and rescue those who run afoul of the sheriff. One of these companions, the best thief of them all, and a crack hand with a knife, is the handsome Will Scarlet. But Scarlet is no boy--she's a girl running from a dark past, who has found, in Robin's somewhat quixotic mission, a way to atone for the guilt that oppresses her.
But Guy of Guisborne, the most feared thief taker in the land, has come to Nottingham. It is Scarlet, not Robin Hood, that he is most interested in. The danger to the people of Nottingham, meaningless pawns to the cruelty of the thief taker, grows daily. And Scarlet and Robin, himself burdened by guilt, find themselves drawn unwillingly to each other, while desperately waging a their war against injustice.
It's a swingingly fast story, with lots of interesting revelations doled out as things progress. Scarlet and Robin are both fascinating characters, and it was hard to put the book down, as I anxiously turned the pages, hoping that somehow there would be a happy ending. But sadly, even though I read it in virtually a single sitting, it didn't quite work for me.
As historical fiction, it required a very conscious effort on my part to suspend disbelief. There were some small, specific things (a character named Freddie, for instance, which is anachronistic), and a larger sense of not being in a convincing medieval England. I was particularly thrown by Scarlet's narration, which is in quasi olde English common-folk speak. The author's intent is to show her as a commoner, and so Scarlet eschews "was" in favour of "were," as in, "it were a long way" and "he were old," which makes me think of stereotypical Lancashire farmers, not the medieval commoners of central England. But I made an effort not to mind, and gradually came to accpet the fact that this is was a fictional England and I shouldn't try to read it as anything else.
It was harder for me to overcome my discomfort about the relationship between Scarlet and Robin. Both are damaged people, who think they are unworthy of love, and so they each do their best to make sure the other won't love them, by being cruel. "Hurting you," says Robin, "is the best way I know to punish myself." (page 285 of ARC), which bothered me all the more because of being part of the big reconciliation scene. It kind of took the fun out of the romance.
Complicating things further is the romantic subplot involving Little John, who wants Scarlet for himself. He pressures her considerably, deliberately taking her feelings of friendly camaraderie, and her loneliness, for an invitation that she's not giving. And Robin blames Scarlet for encouraging him, after assuming, based on circumstantial evidence, that they've been sleeping together. It's a horrible position for Scarlet to be in.
Not only does Robin blame Scarlet for the situation with Little John, toward the end of the book he seems to blame her for the whole situation with Guy of Gisborne, and, being hard on herself, Scarlet is ready to accept this.
I ended up being very annoyed with the lot of them, and not entirely convinced that they were making things any better for anyone in Nottingham.
Other thoughts: Dear Author, YA Muses, Book Harbinger, Angieville, and Pretty in Fiction
(disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher)