Audiobook Rating: 4.75 stars
Audiobook Buy Links: Audible
Narrator: Ross Pendleton
Length: 17 hours, 21 minutes
1185, Shirewode, Loxley
Gamelyn Boundys, son of a nobleman, is injured while riding his horse in the dense woods. He is aided by a boy, Rob, who takes Gamelyn home to his mother who is a healer. While at Rob’s home, Gamelyn also meets Rob’s father Adam, a forester in charge of protecting the King’s woods from poachers, and Rob’s sister Marion. The family keeps him overnight until Gamelyn is ready to travel again, Adam then returning Gamelyn to his family in Blyth castle.
Five years later finds Gamelyn still coming to visit Rob and Marion periodically. They have become unlikely friends, coming from such different backgrounds. Rob’s family are pagans, part of the old religion of the people of the Shirewode. In fact, both his parents have power from the pagan gods; they are the hunter and the healer. And it is Rob and Marion’s fate to take over these roles as leaders of their people. Gamelyn, on the other hand, is the child of the Frankish nobles who have invaded the lands and claimed them for Christianity. He has been brought up devout and taught to reject the beliefs of Rob and his family.
Yet despite their differences, the three become close friends. And eventually the friendship between Gamelyn and Rob begins to turn to more. While Rob eagerly accepts his feelings for Gamelyn, Gamelyn fears his growing love for Rob. He has been taught everything about Rob’s life is a sin, and to be with him is the biggest sin of all. Yet the two men are drawn to each other, and Gamelyn finds himself torn between the beliefs he has held all his life, and his growing love and feelings for Rob.
Despite the closeness they feel for one another, their relationship does not come without risks. The church is a strong presence in Gamelyn’s life. In fact, at one point he thought he might become a monk, and his cousin is a powerful abbess. Not only does Gamelyn struggle with his own demons, accepting his love for Rob, but he must also hide their relationship as others seek to root out and destroy the pagans in their midst. His other brother Johan and the Abbess Elizabeth are particularly zealous threats.
Rob hears the voice of the Horned Lord, the one whose spirit embodies him and warns him of the path Rob and Gamelyn face. Their destinies are intertwined; they will either be lovers, bringing the world into the light, or rivals, destroying everything the people of the wood hold dear. Rob believes that their love is strong enough, that they are meant to be together. But there are others who are determined to destroy Rob’s world and it is still unclear whether Gamelyn will be part of that destruction. It is obvious that a clash is coming between the pagan and Christian ways of life. Soon everything will change, and the two men will have to see if their love is strong enough to withstand the inevitable conflict that is coming their way.
Greenwode by J. Tullos Hennig is based on the Robin Hood legend, telling the story as the conflict between the old and the new ways of life. Rob represents the pagans, the people who believe in magic and the old gods and for whom Rob is the future leader. And Gamelyn represents the new world, the Christian invaders who have come to take over the lands and who hold all the power. They are determined to destroy the old ways and to bring Christianity to the peasants in their midst.
The story is so cleverly told, almost as if we are getting the real story behind the legend. There are enough threads of the Robin Hood tale here to see the connection clearly with many familiar characters – Rob as the skilled archer, Marion, Will, John, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and others. Yet the book takes those threads, along a variety of other pieces of Robin Hood lore, and builds a story of two young men whose destinies are intertwined. We see the conflict building from the very start between the poor and the powerful, the pagan and the Christian. They represent these two opposites lives, and yet they are so clearly meant for one another. The only options are lovers or rivals, and even they don’t always know for sure how things will end.
I found this book totally captivating and loved the way Hennig builds this tale, a mix of history and fantasy and magic. The story is so richly detailed, I was immersed immediately in the time and the setting and it is clear the amount of research that must have gone into every element of the book. From the food, to the weapons, to the clothing, to the religious beliefs, the author paints such a vivid portrait of the world these characters inhabit and I found it all just fascinating.
I adored Rob, strong and clever and just a bit arrogant. He has known for years he is meant to be a future leader and he is determined to protect his family and his people. Rob has an inner strength from the start of the book and you can’t help but adore him, but what I loved most was seeing Gamelyn find his own strength throughout the book. When the story starts, he is rich and powerful, but so naive and innocent. He has no sense of what the nobles are doing to the peasants, of the realities of being the underclass when the wealthy and powerful control everything about your lives. Gamelyn is pious and believes in the church and accepts that his feelings for Rob can be nothing but sin. But slowly we see Gamelyn’s eyes open as he begins to see just what is really going on around him. And even more, as he begins to question what he has been taught about sin and love and what he really wants out of life. The young men start as friends and slowly build a romantic relationship, with a beautiful and intense love for one another.
This story is long and I did feel things started a little bit slow as the author sets up the world and the characters. Things begin to move swiftly as the story goes on, however, and once we jump into the relationship between Gamelyn and Rob, and the conflict between the two worlds they represent, things become much more intense and the ending is thrilling and heartstopping (to the point that I was gasping out loud as I listened). I will tell you I was disappointed to see that the story ends without resolution. Although it is clear this is part of a series and that there is a second book, Shirewode, it is not indicated that in fact this is part one of a two-part story. This first book ends essentially as a cliffhanger with no resolution for our characters or for the larger story arc of the conflict between their worlds. Given the length of the book and the complexity of the story, I understand why it is told in two parts. But I find it very frustrating when it is not made obvious the reader that the book is only part one and can not stand alone. That said, the moment I finished this I was eager to pick up the next book. I don’t think anyone could read Greenwode and not want to learn how the story ends. I just wanted more clear disclosure so people know what they are getting into.
I listened to this story as an audiobook and I really enjoyed it. Narrator Ross Pendleton does an amazing job here, making the most of the lyrical style of the book and giving a storyteller feel to the narration. There are so many characters here, and yet their voices are all so distinct and so perfectly in tune with the characters. We hear Adam’s deep rumble, Rob’s bit of cheek and confidence, Johan’s evil sneer, and the Abbess Elizabeth’s calm placidity that masks the evil inside her. Pendleton manages to navigate a large cast with a variety of accents, representing their classes and regions, and make them each distinct and recognizable. I was really impressed and I felt like it made the story even richer to hear it aloud. This is a book that seems particularly suited to listening and I really enjoyed hearing it read to me.
My only negative to listening rather than reading this one is that sometimes it was hard to follow the names or the more unusual terms, especially the first time they are introduced. While reading a book, you can go back and easily reread for clarification. When listening, things tend to go by more quickly, so there were a few times I had trouble catching details. But this was a small issue, and as I got further along and more used to the story, it was easier to keep up with what was happening.
One thing I will point out, neither good nor bad, is that this is a long story and a very long audiobook — over 20 hours. It took me quite a long time to listen to it all and is pretty clearly a big time commitment. It makes for a very engrossing tale, but also one that spans a lot of time. I think it was more than worth it, but the length may be a factor in deciding whether to read this story or to listen to it.
So even with this lengthy review, I don’t feel like I am even beginning to do justice to this story. I have pages of notes on all the wonderful details of the book. The characters are so richly drawn and well developed. In addition to Rob and Gamelyn, Marion is a particularly fascinating character, strong and fabulous in her own right, supportive of her brother and a partner in leading the pagan peasants. The antagonists are also so well built, from the brash Johan to the cool Elizabeth, whose placid calm belies the evil inside her. And the conflict is so beautifully developed, the two young men who go from friends to lovers, destined to change the world, but with the fates not yet decided whether it will be as enemies or partners. It is thoroughly captivating and wonderfully written and I can not wait to learn what happens and how the conflict resolves. Just excellently done and highly recommended.
A review copy of this book was provided by Dreamspinner Press.