Rating: 4.5 stars
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Constant battle, stifling heat, and a cause in which he had no faith made the Crusades a difficult ordeal to endure for Robin of Locksley. The one comfort he has was the constant presence of his best friend, Will Scathelock. They shared the battlefield, tended to each other’s wounds, and lived almost as one. After a horrific accident, Robin nearly lost Will—an event that preyed upon the secret feelings he harbored for his friend—ones that went far deeper than friendship and camaraderie. Yet Robin was loath to act on his desires for fear of retribution from a God that, like the Crusades, Robin believed in less and less.
When King Richard grants Robin permission to return to England, he finds himself utterly lost. His dismissal of any tender emotion from Will is hard enough, but that his old nemesis Guy of Gisborne taking over his now-deceased father’s lands is salt in the wound. What’s more, Guy rules the land as the Sheriff of Nottingham with more than an iron fist—he rules with a ruthlessly cruel one. No one is spared from his lusty greed for power and money. Enabled by Prince John, Richard’s brother who has played at King while the latter fought abroad, Guy will stop at nothing to consolidate his station by marrying into a title and land. When Guy learns of Robin’s return, his heart turns toward revenge. That feeling is mutual when Robin sees the heartlessness with which the good people of Locksley and indeed all under the so-called care of Guy have suffered. With Will at his side, Robin takes to Sherwood forest, set on robbing from Guy and John to provide for the poor.
Each of Robin’s successful strikes against the wealthy is a blow to Guy’s pride and his reputation. The longer the robberies continue, the less patience John has. This drives Guy to the extremes in attacking Robin and his growing band of outlaws—but when they hide where Guy cannot follow, Guy spares no thought for attacking his own serfs.
How long can Robin suffer the injustices wrought against his people? Time and again, the people who are most important to him are attacked, some killed. It’s up to Robin to decide if he and his band of men (and women) can finally put a stop to the tyranny.
Even as I write this portion of the review days after having finished the story, I *still* can’t stop pouring over the ending! For an angst queen like myself, it hit all the right buttons. Before I delve into what interested me most about the story (the characters!), I’ll give a brief summary of what the rest of the book elements are like (you know, the plot).
First of all, I must commend Dixon on the pacing of the book. While of course I would love nothing more than to read 300 pages filled with the kinds of strife only this incarnation of Robin Hood is able to visit upon himself and what it does to Will (not to mention I’d jump at the chance to wallow in the minutiae of it all if given the chance!), there is so much more than a little romance going on in this book. To be truthful, there actually isn’t really any flowers-and-chocolates (or the 12th century version thereof) in the story, but there’s a lot going on that involved the whole cast in wonderfully interconnected ways.
The villages of Locksley are named and carry no small portion of the drama. Little episodes that build on the groundwork laid and characters introduced in the first book lend a comforting familiarity. Lucy’s family features in this book quite a bit, as do a handful of other Locksley serfs. Between Gisborne’s cruel treatment and outrageously high taxes, they suffer. Help from Robin is like a godsend for them, and they refuse to turn on their savior even when it puts them in Gisborne’s crosshairs. The punshiment netted out to the villages is harsh and raised my ire at the injustice (as surely it was intended to).
Against the wholesome villagers and their struggles to survive, we see what Gisborne is like as a leader. Having lusted after power since the first book and now finally realizing that power, he abuses it at every chance. No one is safe, not even his brother-in-law. The lengths to which he’ll go to exact revenge on Robin and to advance his causes all but churns the guts. Each and ever new horror he thinks up seems to be worse than the last and leaves the reader with a sense that it is surely only a matter of time before Robin is subdued.
Despite a sizable cast of characters on both sides of this battle, I never felt like the plot lines were convoluted. Nor did it feel like the action zeroed in exclusively on one thing at a time. There are several irons in the fire and they are managed in such a way that makes the book read easily. I admit, I didn’t keep close track of all the side characters names (and there are a few turncoats in there), but by and large, it was easy to follow who was doing what action and why.
As good as the story is, I am particularly drawn to this cast of characters. I enjoyed watching these characters act and react to the situations they were in. I felt their helplessness, their rage at these circumstances into which they are thrown and over which they can exercise no control. Much like the struggle Robin faces with owning his feelings for Will, many of the characters seem to suffer (or at least be disadvantaged) as a matter of course for the time period.
Even some of the more important side characters get fleshed out in realistic ways. One was a soldier on the Sheriff’s payroll named Martin. He crops up throughout the book. He helps Marion help Robin escape from Nottingham castle along with Marion’s maid’s brother. Yet he rides into Locksley village to destroy it on Guy’s vicious orders. When Robin calls him out on this, Martin explains he had to or risk death, and even then, Martin tried to raid empty houses and only set flame to those structures he knew were not occupied.
I love being able to recount this minor character with such a rich involvement in the story, all in ways that could have been carried out by a nameless faceless “extra,” but that Dixon put in the time and care to make this a whole person. But of course, the characters that interested me the most were Robin and Will. On the whole, I much preferred the way their dynamic is handled in this second installment…but it took a bit of time for me to get comfortable with it and there are still some big question marks I have.
The one disappointment I had actually concerns Robin himself and how Dixon portrays him in the prose for the first chunk of the book. As I read it, Robin clearly came across as the author’s favorite. I picked up on this favoritism in the prose. It’s in the way the side characters talk of Robin as though he can do no wrong. Sir Richard (Robin’s tutor and father figure) is guilty of this, Maid Marion certainly starts out with Robin on a pedestal, and Will (who sort of gets a pass, but at the same time…ugh) is willing to hold out for Robin’s seemingly frozen heart—and others encourage him to wait, too. I am happy to report this apparent favoritism seemed to taper off as the book progressed.
That said, there was virtually no help for Will. Poor bastard is waiting and waiting and waiting for Robin. Again, the backstory we learn explains better why Robin is so aloof and helps Will be patient…but until we get this backstory, truth be told, it is sort of aggravating that Will feels almost like an the perfunctory lady-in-the-wings. It sort of reads like it’s his job to pine for Robin and get upset that Robin won’t return his subtle attention and doesn’t respond to Will’s overt attentions. At it’s worst, I ended up hoping it was Will who’d get captured and tortured, Will who’d finally give up and leave, Will who’d die (THAT’LL teach Robin!).
Nevertheless, on the whole, the Robin/Will dynamic at least grows a lot more and much more noticeably. Even with the issues described above, I got a much more solid sense of the potential between these two. Time and again, there are several side characters that quietly support the idea of Will/Robin. Specifically, both Robin and Will have a few scenes where their mutual attraction and compatibility are favorably remarked upon on-page.Plus, there’s a huge (by huge, I mean a kiss or three) pay off at the end…but it’s so bitter, bitter sweet.
Because! Maid Marion! Here is a character who, based on the Mel Brooks movie and the Kevin Costner one, I would have expected much different things! The Marion in this story is not all sugar and spice and bending over backwards to help Robin. She ultimately ends up being a foil to Robin and Will and in a super fantastically dramatic way, too. In fact, I would put her squarely in the ‘character I love to hate’ category with the caveat that, during this time (and as is made crystal clear to reader and character a like), even women in the nobility are nothing but pawns in the game of men. So maybe she does manipulate Robin. Maybe she is homophobic (and she totally is, this is well established on-page…would homophobic even be a ‘thing’ in this time period?). So what. I can love to hate her while still sort of rooting her on because it sucks to have all this land and money and status and not be able to USE it because you have a vagina.
All in all, this was a hugely satisfying read. I love all the little details Dixon throws in that place this book in its time period—like that King Richard is rarely ever home, bleeding his country dry to pay for wars abroad. The description of weaponry is kept to a minimum, yet I appreciated the fact that “arrows” go with “bows” and “bolts” go with “crossbows” (I have no idea if this is technically correct, but the budding terminologist in me recognized and appreciates distinguished terms!). If you like Robin Hood tales and want to read one that is full of drama on the battle field and in the, er, semi-boudoir with a wrenching ending (that left me chomping at the bit for book three…or four…or five!) then you will not be disappointed!