Review: Sherwood

SherwoodMeagan Spooner, Sherwood

This retelling of the Robin Hood legend focuses on the character of Maid Marian. When her fiancé Robin of Locksley dies on crusade, Marian sees it as her duty to protect the people of Locksley from the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham and his lieutenant, Sir Guy of Gisborne. When her maid Elena’s brother, Will Scarlet, is arrested for poaching, Marian is determined to save him, both for Elena’s sake and for Robin’s. But when she dresses in men’s clothing for her first rescue attempt, she is mistaken for Robin himself. The mistake gives Marian a daring idea: as a woman, she is almost powerless in society and cannot fight back against the corrupt laws that oppress her people. But as “Robin Hood,” she can actually make a difference. As her deception becomes more and more elaborate, she finds herself in increasing danger, especially from the enigmatic Gisborne. She also makes some hard choices as she learns how far she’ll go to protect her secret.

My all-time favorite version of the Robin Hood story is Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood. It’s just always felt true to me in a way that, say, the Errol Flynn movie (much as I enjoy it) doesn’t. To my surprise and delight, Sherwood gave me that same sense of truth from a very different perspective. This version of Marian is strong and independent, but while her heart is in the right place, she tends to act without thinking — a trait that usually irritates me, but it makes total sense for her character. And I love that she grows in this area throughout the novel, as she realizes that her impetuous actions sometimes have unforeseen consequences. Similarly, I love how this book gives some nuance to the Robin Hood legend: are his actions in robbing the rich to give to the poor always justified? Could he have worked within the law instead of deliberately flouting it? Finally, there’s a romance in this book that completely sneaked up on me, and I adored it. In short, I really loved this book; the moment I finished my library copy, I immediately bought one for myself! Highly recommended, especially if (like me) you also enjoyed Hunted.

Review: The Hollow Hills

The Hollow HillsMary Stewart, The Hollow Hills

Picking up right after The Crystal Cave left off, this book follows Merlin from the day Arthur was conceived to the day he became high king of Britain. Although Merlin helped Uther Pendragon to marry Ygraine, he is currently out of favor with the king. Yet when Uther needs advice about what to do with his unborn child, Merlin is still the first person he consults. If the child is a boy, Uther must recognize him as the king’s son, just in case he is unable to produce a legitimate heir. At the same time, however, he must keep the boy far away from his court, both to protect him and to get him out of the way in case there should be another son with a better claim to the throne. Merlin suggests sending the child to one of Uther’s loyal knights, where he will be raised as a foster child ignorant of his true parentage. Meanwhile, Merlin becomes Arthur’s friend and protector, teaching him all he needs to know in order eventually to take his rightful place as the king’s heir.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the first book in this series, The Crystal Cave, but I actually liked this book more. It starts off slowly, but once Arthur is born, the book picks up and gets significantly more interesting. Unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the political machinations aspect of the book more than the mystical aspect; I found Merlin’s visions and prophecies a little boring! I did like watching the relationship between Merlin and Arthur unfold, though, and I look forward to seeing how it continues in the next book. Overall, I’m glad I decided not to give up after The Crystal Cave, and I’m a little more excited about The Last Enchantment than I was before.

Review: Fire and Hemlock

Fire and HemlockDiana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock

College student Polly believes that she has led a completely ordinary, uneventful life. But while packing for her return to school after a vacation, she begins to contemplate a photograph that has hung on her bedroom wall for years. As she looks at the photograph, she slowly begins to remember a different version of her past — a past in which her closest friend was a talented cellist named Thomas Lynn. In this alternate timeline, Polly met Tom when she was a little girl, and they quickly struck up a friendship, writing letters to each other full of strange and magical events. But when their made-up stories started to happen in real life, Polly knew that something sinister was at stake. Now she must sift through her rediscovered memories in order to save Tom from seemingly certain doom.

This is a book that I really liked overall, but I have a couple of major nitpicks. First, I love Diana Wynne Jones’ style; I’ve read a few of her books and enjoyed them, but I really need to seek out the rest of her work! I also really like the concept of the book: basically, Polly has two sets of memories and has to figure out what that means. It was a really interesting idea to explore, and I think it was executed very well. My biggest quibble is the ending, which I don’t think works at all. Polly realizes why she has the dual memories, figures out how to save herself and Tom, and then it just kind of happens with no real explanation. What happens to the baddies? What will Polly and Tom do going forward? There are a lot of unanswered questions, and that bugs me. My other problem with the book was the romance; I just found it really icky that the hero was so much older than Polly and that he basically had his eye on her since she was a child. I can see where DWJ was trying to go with it, but it did not work for me. Still, this is a book I would definitely recommend overall, especially to fans of retold fairy tales.

Review: The Crystal Cave

The Crystal CaveMary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

This novel, the first installment of Stewart’s Arthurian saga, reimagines the story of Merlin, legendary wizard and mentor to King Arthur. Merlin is the illegitimate son of the king of South Wales, a status that brings both privileges and dangers. He never goes hungry and is able to study with tutors, but he is also a target for anyone who might wish to succeed the king or seize power. When the king dies, the ensuing struggle for the throne puts Merlin in grave danger, and he decides to flee the kingdom. At age 12, with no name, no friends, and no particular skill with a sword, Merlin must learn to survive in a hostile world. He also begins to learn that he possesses unusual abilities — powers that enable him to see into the future and foretell the coming of Arthur, who will eventually become king of a united Britain.

I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s novels of romantic suspense, so I was excited to acquire her first three Arthurian books at a library sale a few years ago. But I have to admit, I was a little disappointed by this book. It’s well-written, and the historical insights into Roman Britain are fascinating…it just moves so slowly! It seems like the first hundred pages of a not-very-long novel are just about Merlin as a child in the king’s home, where nothing much happens to him, and he spends all day hiding in the ruins of the underground plumbing system. Once he leaves South Wales, the story picks up, and I quite enjoyed the descriptions of battles and political maneuverings among the various claimants to the British throne. I’ll read the remaining books because I already bought them, but I wasn’t as excited by this book as I’d hoped.