The main concept behind Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy is to take the most familiar elements of the famous English legend and transport them to Wales in the time of King William the Red (Lawhead provides justification for this in the afterword of Hood) giving them a new cultural flavor and historical context. The idea works surprisingly well, allowing for Lawhead to spin the old tales in an original light.
In Hood, the first installment of the trilogy, Prince Bran of Wales is forced to flee his estate after Norman invaders kill his father and seize control over his lands. Taking to the woods, Bran embraces his role as a leader to the families that have sought sanctuary in the wilds, becoming “Rhi Bran y Hud,” or “the Raven King” to the people known as the Grellon or “the flock.” Using scare tactics in order to raid Norman convoys, Bran takes his cue from a Welsh myth and dresses as a giant raven phantom (yeah, this part is a bit silly) and leads his warriors into guerilla-style ambushes against their oppressors, leaving the black feathers of the raven as a calling card.
In the previous book, it was the traditional Robin Hood’s attempts to collect the ransom for King Richard’s release that was given a Welsh twist; written instead as Bran’s mission to raise enough money to legally buy his land back from the Norman King. In Scarlet, it is the famous archery tournament that is given a revamp, with the added twist that this time our Robin is trying to lose! I won’t give away the details, but Lawhead is extremely clever in adapting the traditional source material to make the “real story” behind the legends.
Born an Englishman but forced out of his home and livelihood thanks to the Forest Laws, Will Scatlocke seeks out his mother’s people in Wales approximately two years after the events of Hood. Having heard rumors of the King Raven, Will is eager to throw in his lot with the outlaw prince in his efforts to overthrow Norman tyranny. Taken into the flock, Scarlet is soon enthusiastically contributing his skills in their latest ambush — one that delivers an unforeseen treasure into the outlaws’ hands, one that may well tip the balance of power in their favor. That’s only if they manage to figure out its full significance and use their newfound information accordingly.
This time around, the villains are not the various baronial overlords, but rather the sadistic Sheriff Richard de Glanville and his lackey Guy of Gysburne, as well as Abbott Hugo de Rainault, a name and personality that seems to have been swiped directly from Robin of Sherwood. The mysterious letter that the outlaws find is of crucial significance to the fate of Wales, and Lawhead draws on the real historical tension that existed between Urban and Clement in order to create the political intrigue that drives the plot.
Unlike the previous book, which was told entirely in third-person narrative, most of the chapters in Scarlet are narrated by Will himself as he languishes in a prison cell, awaiting his execution and sharing his story of what lead him to these current circumstances with a Norman monk. Brother Odo is an engrossed listener, and between the two of them a strange sort of friendship arises as Will’s tale unfolds.
As the title would suggest, Will Scarlet takes centre-stage in this novel, shifting the perspective from Bran and intensifying the point-of-view by putting us directly into Will’s mind. Although Will’s voice is brisk and his speech patterns engaging, it’s unclear exactly what he’s telling the Norman monk in his confession — the narrative often skips between his recounting of his experiences and the interruptions that Odo makes in the cell. It’s a stylistic technique that doesn’t quite gel, for not only are we unsure how much Will is divulging (and whether it includes the outlaw secrets that the reader is privy to) but that once the past catches up to the future, the need for Will’s confessional account ends, and it’s unclear who exactly he’s talking to at all.
It’s also a shame that Bran is more of a secondary character this time around; having become invested in his development in the last book, he seems considerably more distant here, and his relationship with Merian still hasn’t improved much. The two of them don’t really seem to like each other, and all we have Lawhead’s assurance that they’re actually in love. I’ve come to suspect that writing romance is simply not his strong suit. Further evidence is provided when Will falls in love with an outlaw woman. Why? Well… because she’s a woman. That’s all we get.
But of course, Lawhead’s great strength is melding an exciting story based on old legends with the historical context of the time. He has a strong grip on plot and characterization, as well as the knack of knowing just the right blend of humor, pathos, detail and suspense to craft a quick-paced and thoroughly enjoyable novel. I’m definitely glad I began this trilogy after it’s completion, for now I won’t need to wait for the final book: Tuck.