“Fuck me, he cleared it!”
The buzz is a-building about Carrie Lofty’s What a Scoundrel Wants since the buzz-o-matic Ann Aguirre launched a viral contest to spread the word about Lofty’s debut with Kensington. I read this book a few weeks ago, and I have to say, Lofty set herself for a hell of a task: she took a legend with which most people were familiar, and a setting and time period that hadn’t been visited within the romance genre in a very long while, and placed a romance among characters who are so familiar and enduringly popular that readers who pick up this book may already have a visual for the hero in mind, whether it’s Christian Slater from Prince of Thieves, source of the quote above, or Harry Lloyd from the BBC version of Robin Hood. Or maybe you hear the name “Robin Hood” and think of and think of foxes, bears, and lions. No matter how Lofty describes Will Scarlet, her description may be overridden by the reader’s preference. Plus, how to handle the epic overshadowing potential of Robin himself? Can a secondary character in a legend that dates back to the 14th century be a hero?
The story opens with one of the best first lines I’ve read in awhile: “Will Scarlet hated trees.”
Will Scarlet is also in deep shit. He’s about to ambush a coach traveling through the woods, and when the rush commences, he realizes that something is way rotten in that forest among the not very merry men with whom he’s fighting. Meg of Keyworth is also in deep shit. She’s blind, her sister’s been arrested (by Will – oops), and her alchemic experiments have caught the eye of many a nefarious character who seeks to take advantage of Meg, and of her blindness, and to top that, her coach was just ambushed in the woods. When Will realizes that the double crossing might be increased by an exponent of 436, and Meg realizes that she has to rely on Will whether she wants to or not (and she doesn’t, really, see above re: sister), the layering of internal and external conflict is a fourteen-foot Napoleon torte of deep shit.
Will Scarlet is tremendously enjoyable. His dialogue is sardonic and sarcastic and with each successive scene he staples on a sense of disinterest, while every now and again betraying his inner reaction to the situations he finds himself in. To wit: “Ohshitohshitohshit. Ok, play it cool.” He’d be the actor with the slightly manic eyes and the utterly still expression on his face.
Meg is curious. It would take a hell of heroine to stand up to the mythic and fictional Will Scarlet, and while she’s prickly, somewhat nuts, freaking brilliant, stubborn, not a little dangerous and fully aware of her own worth as a female (fail) alchemist (win) who is blind (fail fail fail) and has a tendency to set things ablaze (fail).
But as I said, the setting is as much a reason why this book drew me in within a few pages each time I picked it up. Lofty pushes a lot of potential buttons, from the familiarity with the legend the novel’s based on, to the sexual experience and attitude towards sex on the part of the characters, particularly Meg’s ambivalent realism. Some readers may object to the degree of assertiveness with which Meg approaches all things in her life, including and especially her own sexuality. She’s smarter than just about everyone and she knows it, and she’s terribly curious and insatiable in every sense. Her interactions (ahem) with Will are incendiary from the start, and watching them figure their way to an emotional connection through the heat of their attraction is part of the adventure of their story.
Will’s equally stubborn adherence to his own values, which are, namely, “Rule #1. Save my neck. Rule #2: see #1” add plenty of conflict as well. Further complicating the potential of the setting and the sexuality is the concept of nobility and chivalry that is all up in that time period. The subtexts of the plot contain an exploration of not only nobility and honor, which are a familiar discussion in the subtext of romance, but also the concept of chivalry – a slightly different concept that draws upon the first two. Will is inherently chivalrous, even when he’s being an utter dog, and that ingrained sense of conduct informs his decisions, and Robin’s too.
Speaking of Robin, by the time he rolls in, I was begging to see him despite dreading his arrival in the beginning, because his role – and rule – in Will’s life leads to such depths of conflict and unresolved anger that he has to show up to complete Will’s journey. I worried that he’d overshadow Will as the hero, because, well, how could he not? He’s fucking Robin Hood (adjective, not verb). And how to allow Robin to remain a hero in his own right? Can Will be the hero of his own story without removing any of Robin’s heroism? These are not easy tasks, to say the least.
The action sequences are also spectacular, and they had an almost cinematic quality to them. I could see how they’d be filmed, or how they’d play visually, which underscores the descriptive talent in narrating and blocking at work in the book. The other fun part of this novel is the adventure that makes the plot look like the end result of a game of dominos. Right turn here, wait backwards we go, double cross! No wait, over there, wait, right turn, run! There’s no predicting how the mysteries will be resolved. Neither Will nor Meg are sure who to trust, or if they can even trust each other, and even the reader is challenged to figure out the potential motivations and machinations of every character – including the protagonists – as Meg and Will puzzle through their quest.
Speaking solely for myself, I definitely read and heard and saw in my mind’s movie theatre a whole lot of Christian Slater as Will. From the sarcasm to the quick and wry wit to the rapid-fire replies and general smart assery, Slater took up residence in my brain. For me, that’s not at all a problem. But if it could be due to the fact that I’ve rocked a crush on him since Pump Up the Volume and much preferred looking at him versus at Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves. I couldn’t possibly predict how another reader may interpret or experience celebrity interference but it makes me wonder how that would affect a reader’s experience, particularly since, even though Lofty’s skillz with dialogue are fab and the banter is fantastic – even when Meg and Will are fighting, it’s fun to eavesdrop on them – I definitely had a preference for Will. Meg often irritated the crap out of me – she is not your typical limp washcloth easily likable heroine.
However, in creating a heroine who is singular, irritating, prickly, brave, strong and brilliant, Lofty did something that I as a reader always appreciate: she wrote an intelligent romance, and she treats the reader as if the reader is intelligent as well. I always enjoy and respect that.
So in setting herself up with an enormous challenge to scale, from using a medieval legend and a well-known and frequently-portrayed character as the hero for a romance to developing a heroine who is his equal and allowing readers to both invoke their own impressions of Will Scarlet and enjoy the author’s liberties with the character, Lofty gave herself a mighty tall obstacle to cross.
Fuck me. She cleared it.
Interested in a copy of the book? I’ve got five – so leave a comment and, in poetic form of your choosing, express your love for all things Robin Hood, Will Scarlet, and Sherwood. Emphasis on wood.