This review contains mild spoilers.
For my review of the first book of the King Raven Trilogy Hood, click here.
Book Name: Scarlet
Author: Stephen Lawhead
Series: Book #2, King Raven Trilogy
Publisher(s): Thomas Nelson Publishers
Format(s): Hardcover/Trade Paperback/Audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Historical fiction/Fantasy
Release Date: June 10, 2008
Simply put, Scarlet is one of the best books I have read in a long while. The story is of William Scatlocke, AKA Will Scarlet, and how he came to join with Rhi Bran Hud and the Grellon. In a departure from the style of Hood, most of the story in Scarlet is narrated by Will Scarlet himself when he tells his tale to a monk named Odo as Scarlet waits to hanged for his crimes against God and the Crown by sheriff Guy of Gysborne. There are alternating chapters set in the current time centering on the Ffreinc and their continued attempts to capture Rhi Bran Hud and Wales.
What’s interesting is that Will Scarlet doesn’t tell his story as if he thinks he’s a dying man. In fact, he does just the opposite and tells his story in a manner knowing that he needs to give Bran ap Brychan time to mount a recue. So he tells what appears to Odo to be a winding tale full of important information but instead Scarlet leaves out anything that would allow the sheriff to find Bran. The relationship between Scarlet and Odo, while a touch predictable, is nonetheless written very well.
Scarlet does not start off as fast paced as Hood generally was, matching the personality that Lawhead gives to Will Scarlet. In the original Robin Hood myth Scarlet is an angry young man that tends to fly off the handle at a moment’s notice. Lawhead has turned him into a thoughtful gentleman, and has also changed Scarlet’s ability from being a great swordsman to being just as good of a shot with a bow as Bran. It’s a skill that comes into play in two pivotal scenes in Scarlet.
In Scarlet we see the true frustration of the Ffreinc in their failure to swiftly capture Wales, and the book does a lot better than Hood in portraying the true villainy of the Ffreinc. Lawhead once again doesn’t go for clichés in that area, but instead shows how shockingly evil the Ffreinc were to the Welsh people and their way of life through simple, basic stories. While many of those scenes are written with the Robin Hood mythos in mind the truth was the invading Normans were just as terrible to the local inhabitants as Lawhead describes in Scarlet.
Lawhead is known for throwing real history into his settings as he reworks legends to match when they were first likely told, and in Scarlet he does it again. In a series that has major religious undertones–both Christianity and pagan–just as the era had, Lawhead throws in the issue of there being multiple popes as an important element in the story. With Pope Urban II being the legitimate pope in exile and (Antipope) Clement III in Rome and each being supported by different regents the intrigue of someone switching papal elegances for personal gain plays a role in the plot.
The rescue of Scarlet, which obviously was going to happen at some point, is humorous and well written. Lawhead uses a bit of bait-and-switch as he makes it seem one thing will happen, and them slowly makes obvious what is really going on. In the end it might be a little over the top, but it fits nicely within the story and is toned down by the characters themselves not really believing it worked so well. He does it again with their final means of escape, and just as the reader makes up his mind something implausible has happened Lawhead gives the simplest explanation as to how it occurred. I would bet most would not have guessed Bran’s men would have done what they did, and yet it seems so obvious once it’s explained.
The only potential checkmark against the book is the events on Scarlet do not pick up right where Hood ended. But based on the style Lawhead used in this book, how could it? Just as Scarlet tells us of what transpired between the two books, and Lawhead sets the stage nicely for the finale, Tuck.
Also, well before reading Hood and Scarlet I’d read that Lawhead’s was proselytizing in the series. I don’t have the slightest idea how anyone could come up with that idea. Lawhead writes of the Catholic Church just as it was in the last 11th century. The number of bad things done in the name of Divine right in the first two books of the series should have been enough to dissuade anyone from that opinion. But you don’t have to take my or anyone else’s thoughts on that, you get to read them for yourself and decide. And I suggest you do so.