Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen – Review

Book Jacket:

Many readers know the tale of Robin Hood, but they will be swept away by this new version full of action, secrets, and romance.

Posing as one of Robin Hood’s thieves to avoid the wrath of the evil Thief Taker Lord Gisbourne, Scarlet has kept her identity secret from all of Nottinghamshire. Only the Hood and his band know the truth: the agile thief posing as a whip of a boy is actually a fearless young woman with a secret past. Helping the people of Nottingham outwit the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham could cost Scarlet her life as Gisbourne closes in.

It’s only her fierce loyalty to Robin—whose quick smiles and sharp temper have the rare power to unsettle her—that keeps Scarlet going and makes this fight worth dying for.

Review:

A lively adventure with a fun, brash voice, Scarlet is a book that entertains, no question, but sadly it also is a story hamstrung by an exceedingly overwrought love triangle.

I’ll admit, I do love a good Robin Hood retelling, and while this isn’t the first time I’ve read a story where Scarlet is a girl masquerading as a boy (Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood springs to mind), it is the first I’ve read told entirely from Scarlet’s point of view – and I absolutely fell in love with her voice. Gaughen writes Scarlet in a rough vernacular that is just brilliant. Scarlet is rough, rude, prickly, and competent – she’s a girl in a time and place where girls are not supposed to be able to take care of themselves, and the ways she pushes back against the grating chauvinism and male condescension of her fellows is just fun to read. Even better, Scarlet is also something of a mess – emotionally she’s wrestling with a lot of history, love triangle aside, and this story takes a good look at her forms of self punishment, among which are a problem with food that verges on an eating disorder. Scarlet is a fascinating, complicated character, and her secret history, slowly doled out over the course of the book, was the hook that kept me gallivanting through this story. Scarlet makes for a fantastic lead.

But that said, there still were definitely some things about the girl that didn’t work for me. Aside from the romantic ridiculousness (which I’ll get to), it was frankly downright unbelievable just how much Scarlet was the brains behind the entire Outlaw operation. Her merry band seemed virtually helpless without her – she’s constantly the only one who can come up with a plan, or spot a good take, or sneak into the keep, or otherwise save the day. (I mean, really? Robin did fight in the Crusades, surely he’s not that useless.) Not to mention all of Scarlet’s sneaking and skulking and climbing and pick-pocketing quickly becomes absurdly super-hero-like – the girl is a factory-made Super Thief – and I just choked on it. Now I’m all for a good action hero, usually, but I couldn’t swallow this one – and maybe Tamora Pierce has spoiled me over the years by showing her heroines sweat and strive to earn their crazy skills, but when Scarlet’s supposed thief training was finally revealed, I just about squawked with disbelief. So did I have fun watching Scarlet do ridiculous, impossible things? Sure. It just was a bit too over the top to be believable.

And now we’ve come to it, the thing that at times made me want to throw this book across the room – the painfully overwrought, angsty Love Triangle. Honestly, I was sick of love triangles long before I read this book, but Scarlet quickly became the straw the broke this camel’s back – it was just too EGREGIOUSLY contrived. We’re talking rampant girl/guy stupidity for plot convenience, a forced attraction to stall the inevitable pairing, a sea of angst that exists only so our characters can drown in it, and two guys who treat our girl like crap on a regular basis. Both guys were super controlling, not to mention constantly jerking her around, and Scarlet was just a patsy for most of it. Sure, she made token efforts to push back, but she never really stood her ground, or even took a stand at all, and it drove me nuts. Stark-raving-mad. And what only made it worse was that I could see the intent behind it all – and I actually liked the idea, in theory. I think there’s something so interesting in having to make a choice between a guy you just can’t help having a thing for and a friend you could maybe build something with, between a guy who is emotionally unavailable and a guy who is a little too available, to every girl. There could have been something to all of this, something said about how hard those choices can be, and how we’re sometimes at war with ourselves over them, but instead Scarlet, sadly, in this one respect, is a passive damsel in distress, waiting for The Boy to like her. Just shoot me. I’m not going to be able to read another book with a love triangle for at least a month, I swear.

And yet – and yet – there still is definitely something to this story, something that’s worth enjoying. This book has action, rebellion, plenty of Evil with a capitol E to be defeated (Gisborne has a star-quality leer), not to mention robbing of the rich to feed the poor. The action is fun, the pacing relentless, and the romping over hill and dale is just hard to resist.

So what to make of this book? It was a quick read, entertaining, and despite it all, I did absolutely love Scarlet’s voice. But in the end I still find myself irked at this book to such an extent that if there is a second book, I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to read it. Make of that what you will.

Byrt Grade: B+/B

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly says:

Gaughen creates a believable character in Scarlet, a fierce but feeling heroine surviving in an inequitable and unruly society. Alternating action sequences with dramatic emotional encounters, this restaging suggests that the bravest acts may be to trust and love.

Dear Author says:

Overall, the character of Scarlet made this book worth reading for me. I found the narrative voice to be interesting and unique. On the downside, the love triangle left me irritated at best. For a good stretch of the book, I didn’t believe either of the two options deserved her considering the way they treated her.

Angieville says:

Scarlet is massively entertaining. I was caught up in this unusual thief’s story from the first page…I’m always a fan of girls in disguise, and this one has the bite to match her bark, if you will.

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