Book Review: Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen

gaughen 001I love the Robin Hood myth, the Merry men, Maid Marian, all of it. So, when I saw Scarlet (with its really gorgeous cover) in the library and learned that it was a retelling of the myth with Will Scarlet — thief, knife expert, and sneak — as a girl, I was stoked. I love retellings, and I especially love retellings in which typical male roles are presented to women. They fill me with joy.

Unfortunately, I built up a lot of expectations in my mind before reading, and the book went contrary to my expectations. There are things I liked and things I didn’t like with the end result being that I really want to like the book as a whole, but can’t quite love it.

First, what I liked. I love Scarlet. I love that wears boys clothes and tucks her hair up under a hat, that she could chop it off, but chooses not too, because it something that’s hers, her own personal secret. I loved that she’s tough, she’s slick with knives, clever with plans, and is one of only ones of the group that can sneak in an out of Nottingham castle through secret passageways. The men turn to her in working out plans, trusting her skills in dire situations. And I like that she’s though she’ll stay silent and hidden, but when she wants to speak, she’s smart mouthed and opinionated (in fact her voice throughout the book is consistent and very well done). She would give up her food to someone less fortunate even if it meant she had to go hungry. She’s also guilt-ridden and dark humored, which is hard sometimes hard to read, but you get the sense that hard living has led her to be that way and she doesn’t wallow all the time. Often she desires to run away from the situation, the boys, everything, but she sticks around despite the risks and makes sh*t happen.

I also love Much, one of Robin’s crew, who only has one hand, but still keeps up with the rest of the group. He’s good with the villagers and is kind in a true and honest way. He’s also the only one who shows and receives kindness from Scarlet without expecting something sexual to come of it.

Then there’s the stuff I didn’t like as much…, which I can’t really talk about without throwing in a few spoilers, so fair warning:


Robin Hood was not the hero I was expecting. He’s handsome (stormy eyed) and smart and uses the bow, but Scarlet outshines him with her agency that he seems pale in comparison. Yes, he’s young and inexperienced (and very moody) in this version, but Scarlet keeps telling the reader what a hero he is, what a great leader he is, but we never really see either of those things acted out with the exception of him occasionally barking orders and helping a villager out. There’s only one scene with Robin using his bow, and all the planning comes from Scarlet. Since this is supposed to be a team and Scarlet is supposed to be such a lone wolf, I would have liked to see Robin have a little more cleverness and agency of his own so that he wasn’t quite out shadowed.

But that’s a small concern for me compared to his continual jealousy because of Little John (which I will get to in a bit), and his turning into a complete ass-shat when he learns her true identity. His explanation for all this bad behavior was “I hurt you to hurt myself,” which is such BS and I can’t believe Scarlet would accept that as an excuse. I do think the characters work well together as a couple, because of they are both wounded people trying to find some redemption for themselves, but I’m still annoyed with the instant turn around at the end.

There’s a general sense and belief among the men that a women, even Scarlet, MUST belong to a man. A general belief in ownership is involved, which fits the time period, but is still very annoying, especially when it comes to Little John and his pursuit of Scarlet after he sees her in a dress. He starts flirting with her and toying with her, and no matter how many times Scarlet says, “No, John, I’m not interested in you as a mate,” John says the equivalent of “You don’t know your own mind” or “You know you want to,” which makes me very uncomfortable. There are some confused emotions for Scarlet, because she sees him as a teammate and a brother, and when she’s at her most low, John shows her kindness, which she accepts because she’s so desperately in need of kindness. But every time John takes this acceptance of a kindness as a tease, a sign that she really MUST be attracted to him, even though she says she’s not.

What makes it worse is that compiled on top of John’s inability to accept her “No” is that Robin doesn’t believe her “No” either. Because John likes her, she must be with John, thinks and speaks Robin. Scarlet even shouts at them all, saying that they don’t take her feelings into account, and they absolutely do not, which is an awful situation, especially if they are supposed to trust each other. The only one who gets her feelings is Much, and he’s not given much say.

This feeling of ownership by her companions is especially disheartening in the face of the main villain, who is another man treating her like an object, wishing to possess her. Though the boys are not as extreme in their sense of ownership, it still rings ugly to me.

Then there is Scarlet’s SECRET IDENTITY, which I pretty much figured out as soon as she blushed when Robin glanced her way. She’s Maid Marian. I get why the author made this choice. Gaughen loved the myths, but never liked Marian, because she always thought of her as weak (which is pretty much how I feel about Buttercup in the Princess Bride). So, she changed things up and made Marian a thief and knife thrower. Cool.

I don’t mind too much that Scarlet and Marian are the same . . ., except when I picked up the book, I kind of hoped and expected to have Scarlet be a different character. For all the times Marian has to be rescued, I never thought of her as weak. She had a different kind of strength from the men, an ability to stand tall and help the cause as a lady from a different front. She had to smile in the face of her enemies while secretly helping Robin. She was clever in her own right. But she was always the only woman in the stories, the only women among all the men, so I kind of feel that by melding the two characters together, Gaughen lost the opportunity to have not one, but two strong women become part of the Robin Hood myths — one who stood tall as a lady, and one who was a thief and knife thrower. I would have liked to see that.

She made another choice, and that’s fine. Scarlet is a great character. But I can’t help but be a bit disappointed nevertheless.

So…, look. There are things I really love about this book, and there are things that really annoy me, too. That leaves me with mixed feelings. Will I read more books by Gaughen in the future? Most definitely, yes, because I do think she’s a great writer even if this book was contrary to my expectations.

[Cross-posted to my livejournal.]