Book Review: Scarlet – Stephen R. Lawhead

Scarlet

Scarlet, the second book in Lawhead’s “King Raven” trilogy, a masterful retelling of the legend of Robin Hood, is a self-assured, adventurous jaunt of a novel that sets a strong, rollicking pace without once compromising on detail or emotional gravitas. Featuring the story of Will Scarlet, roguish forester with a heart of gold as told to a monk from the prison cell poor Will languishes in while he awaits the dubious pleasure of the Sheriff’s eager noose, it is a fast-paced, exciting read that fairly flies along. Cleverly structured and cleverly told, this is an accomplished text from an equally accomplished author.

In short: I like it. I like it a lot.

Plot

Although Scarlet is most definitely the story of the character who shares that name, it is also, as the second installment of Lawhead’s “King Raven” trilogy, the continuation of the story of Bran and his Grellon as they fight tirelessly to regain their lost lands. Thematically, it is a novel of courage, strength, adventure and hope, the tale of a man who refuses to stand down and abandon what he believes is rightfully his, the tale, in short, of Robin Hood. Some aspects may differ – the devil is always in the details – but this is, through theme and action, recognisably a reinvention of that familiar legend, and not just because there are a couple of archers running around.

Though that does help, certainly.

Scarlet contains enough political detail to satisfy the history buffs among you – I know you’re there somewhere, don’t be shy – enough battle scenes to make it clear that not only is this a serious situation – I occasionally need reminding – but also that there are equally serious consequences, and finally a laudable dedication to presenting not only the action scenes, but also the emotional consequences that result from them. Thus, Lawhead turns the legend of Robin Hood into a story that is arguably realistic and undeniably human, populated with heroes and villains, but with a sense of morality skewed firmly into the grey.

(She says, articulately).

Characters

I have a weakness for sarcastic characters – you’re all terribly shocked, I’m sure – and laid-back, unassuming, fundamentally entertaining Will Scarlet is thus exactly what I enjoy. Roguish but loveable, kind-hearted, talented and courageous, Will is an excellent choice of main character, bringing a fresh new perspective to the series. His is a simpler perspective, clearly distinct from that provided by Bran, the disinherited heir, in the first book, and that provided by Tuck, a devoted Friar, in the third. Believable, likeable, and well crafted, he invites sympathy with his good humour and courage in the face of considerable adversity, and allows the reader to engage with the Grellon in, arguably, a much more personal manner.

Other Comments

The majority of Will’s story is given to the reader through Odo, related to the monk while Will waits for his execution. This is an interesting strategy, albeit not underused, and Lawhead employs it to impressive effect to bring the reader up to speed and establish Will as a useful character far from the confused newcomer – which might, arguably, have been the obvious way to take it. Additionally, Will Scarlet’s personality, not to mention his voice – strong, confident, unyieldingly loyal – can be neither ignored or dismissed, and there is nothing to suggest that he might be in any way unreliable. Potentially, some of the character judgements Will makes – particularly in regards to the Normans – can be dismissed with an understanding that Will retains grievances against them, but this is only to be expected and, arguably, lends his voice a further believability.

To conclude, Scarlet is intense, adventurous, and intelligent, foregrounds many important themes that we see revisited throughout the series – loyalty, in particular – defies attempts at categorization, and is, finally, an excellent reinvention of a legend that never seems to fade away.

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