Friday, September 2, 2016

Hood, Stephen Lawhead

The trails in the forest of Bookdom lead down many winding paths, and you have to be patient along the way. Sometimes it takes time for your path and a particular book's to intertwine.

But it's bound to happen eventually.

I first heard of Stephen Lawhead at a writer's conference. The conference coordinators and I were talking about book recommendations, and when his name came up in the conversation, I tucked it away for future reference. A couple of years later, I visited a bookstore and found a Stephen Lawhead book about Robin Hood, set in Wales. But, you have to make hard choices sometimes, and that particular day I had to walk away without it. A few months later still, it was time. I brought another, slightly more beat-up copy home to live in My Lady Bibliophile's palace and dug in.


The Book 

Robin Hood

The Legend Begins Anew

For centuries, the legend of Robin Hood and his band of thieves has captivated the imagination. Now the familiar tale takes on new life, fresh meaning, and an unexpected setting.

Steeped in Celtic mythology and the political intrigue of medieval Britain, Stephen R. Lawhead's latest work conjures up an ancient past and holds a mirror to contemporary realities. Prepare yourself for an epic tale that dares to shatter everything you thought you knew about Robin Hood.


My Thoughts 
One thing I really liked about Lawhead's retelling is his fully fleshed out villains. We flip back and forth between Bran and the villain POV. Count de Braose is a very good henchman to the crown with complex flaws, and the lengths he went to surprised me on occasion. Some of the villains are strong and ruthless and some of them are weak and cringing, but in a totally believable way. Lawhead's villains are individuals, with individual motivations and allies, and I really like that realism. I feel like my taste for Paul Murray Kendall's complex historical characters carried over here into my liking of Lawhead's Norman characterizations. 

One thing I particularly like about this book is that it's a more full-blooded kind of fiction that I'd love to see more Christian publishers dealing with. Bran has an understated faith arc, and the author is able to stay true to the rough-and-tumble soldier's world he thrusts us into. Lawhead deals with subtlety, and I like the variety that offers. Perhaps in fantasy it's a little easier, but this book reads like historical fiction, so as a writer of straight historical fiction, I like seeing his style on the market. While you will find brief instances of language/crudity and mature elements, it's not overwhelming to the good elements of the book. As a friend said, "adult Christian fiction without being cheesy." That sums it up perfectly. 

Mérian had the inner arc that sticks out to me most as I write this review. We start the book with her and Bran carrying on a borderline mistress relationship (though for those concerned, the beginning of the book is the most intense and never goes too far). Then as we go further, her romantic struggles get more and more complicated. No one else knows how deeply grief wounds her heart when Bran disappears. But as she goes on and meets different characters in the cast, she finds herself struggling with feelings she never expected. Her mother warns her against falling in love with the English, who are trying to take over Welsh lands. Mérian has no intention of doing so, but her father keeps thrusting her and the rest of their family into the company of an English baron, and Marian can tell that the baron is eyeing her instead of his wife. Very slowly, she starts struggling with feelings for a Englishman, and a married man at that. And without really drawing attention to it, Lawhead writes a very good portrayal of a woman with whom life went differently than she expected, who had to struggle against an attraction she probably would never have wanted to deal with in the first place. It's a small side plot in it all, but I think it's Lawhead's most in-depth and skillfully drawn character in the story.

On the minus side: After Rosemary Sutcliff, I admit I'm spoiled for anything, but I thought the descriptions were bland and would have liked a more vivid connection with the deep forest Bran enters. Somehow the forests and waterfalls and rivers didn't grab me this time. There was nothing to make me hold my breath and linger in wonder, and in a fantasy that's what I really want to see. I'm a proponent for a fully fleshed out world. 

Also, while we have a close connection to Bran's thoughts in his struggle and rebirth scenes, the author switches to omniscient view in the latter half of the book as Bran begins his upward climb to save his people. That sucked the personal stakes and foreshadowing out of the climax, and while the stakes were clearly there--getting money to buy back his kingdom--the personal meaning of it for him felt weak and disconnected. I would rather have had a plot that relied on gut-level connection with the characters for the final fireworks, not merely surprise and cleverness. Though I will say, that after the biggest climax, Lawhead reconnects us to Bran's heart and struggles. 

Back to the positives, Lawhead's note at the end of the book about his research was fascinating. I loved his look into the history of Robin Hood and the geography and history of the Welsh people. He builds a solid, real-life case for his Bran ap Brychan, and since I'm excited about anything resembling a historical mystery, I loved the way he pieced together the premise for his book. I highly recommended taking the time to read it. 

I'm a huge fan of Paul Creswick's Robin Hood, so any Robin Hood retelling has a longstanding fandom to live up to. Stephen Lawhead's rendition made for a mostly fun summer romp on my TBR stack. Adventure, character growth, and a touch of Celtic legend of the very best variety make for good ingredients to work with. 

3 comments:

  1. Stephen R. Lawhead is one of my favourite historical fantasy writers. I'm glad that you have had the chance to sample his work. I enormously enjoyed the Hood trilogy. I actually think that they get better the further on you go. Probably the biggest thing that struck me about Lawhead's work is his interesting attempt to bring together the ancient Celtic Druidism and Christianity. (Probably, his Pendragon Cycle is better for this.) Anyway, I would highly recommend the further adventures of Rhi Bran and his merry Cymry!

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  2. I enjoyed Hood... but Scarlet and Tuck are by far the better parts of the trilogy. :) Fun to read your review!

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  3. Oh, Hood. I read it a few months ago, and I agree with your thoughts. I too disliked the lack of description—it was hard for me to get into the story because I couldn't really envision the scenery, and it felt like I should be able to since the woods played such a big role in it. That kind of distanced me from the characters, which I disliked. But yes, I really appreciated Bran's, as you put it, "understated faith arc." I despise cheesy conversion stories/faith arcs, so this one was really refreshing. Thanks for the lovely review!

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