Robyn Fletcher is one of many common people in Nottingham trying to put food on their tables while the privileged ruling class lives off their hard work. When Robyn’s brother is hung by the sadistic sheriff of Nottingham for poaching, he leaves behind a wife and child Robyn must provide for. The sheriff has commanded that no one in the city buy arrows from Robyn Fletcher. After setting her dignity aside and begging the cruel sheriff for mercy that’s denied, Robyn is left with no choice but to turn to poaching to provide food for her family. After a fateful hunting accident, Robyn finds herself on the run from the law. She takes refuge deep in Sherwood Forest. In men’s clothing, a short haircut, and a cloak to cover her face, Robyn Hood is born.
Marian of Basford has always felt a little out of place at court, but as the daughter of the sheriff of Nottingham, a lot is expected of her. Tucked away from the critical eye of her father, she enjoys her days at Harcourt Manor as a handmaiden to Lady Emmeline and a peaceful existence with the other women in Emmeline’s household, Willa of Maunnesfeld and Alanna the minstrel. Marian has a modicum of freedom living amongst these women, but her betrothal to Lord Linley, the Viscount of Nottingham, weighs heavy on her mind as do the inappropriate thoughts she has about Emmeline.
While out riding with Lady Emmeline and her ladies, Marian’s thrown and knocked unconscious when her horse stumbles into a hornet’s nest and bolts deep into Sherwood Forest. As luck would have it, Robyn and her traveling companion, John, happen upon Marion before any of the more criminal elements hiding in the forest do. Even with welts from the hornet stings covering Marian, Robyn can’t help noticing her beauty and grace. She’s overcome by the desire to protect the young woman even though it could cost her her freedom. When Marian regains consciousness, Robyn and John calm her by promising they mean her no harm, and they will help her find her riding party when she’s well enough to trek through the forest. There’s an immediate attraction between Marian and Robyn, which feels odd to Marian. She’s never felt desire for a man before, but something about this young man who’s come to her aid feels different. When Marian tells Robyn who her father is, Robyn and John realize they must return her as quickly as possible and that accepting the reward she’s offered is out of the question. Marian and Robyn bid farewell to each other with the hope that sometime soon they might have reason to meet again.
When the sheriff of Nottingham levies the largest tax in history, Robyn’s left to take matters into her own hands. She has friends and family who are in danger of losing everything, and she believes the costs incurred by the ruling class shouldn’t be shouldered by the common men and women who are just trying to get by. With her band of merry women and men, Robyn schemes to rid England of the evil sheriff while defeating Sherwood Forest’s notorious crime lord, Siward. The love developing between Robyn and the off-limits Marian is the one distraction that could cost Robyn her life.
With her heart and freedom at stake, how far is Robyn prepared to go to guarantee the security of the people she loves?
This incarnation of Robyn and Marian surpasses the legend that inspired it. Call them star crossed lovers, but Burke gives them an emotional depth that resonated with me and kept me captivated from beginning to end. Nottingham is populated with a wonderfully queer and robust cast of characters. Burke creates side characters who are completely unique and immediately sympathetic. They all deserve their own section, but I want to keep this review under 2,000 words, so I’m just going to talk about Robyn and Marian.
Robyn is fascinating because she’s such a reluctant hero. She didn’t set out to be the people’s champion minstrels sing about. In fact, her anonymity is what she depends on to keep herself and her family safe. Her retreat to Sherwood Forest isn’t something she’s proud of. It’s one thing to be a poacher, but to be a murderer? The guilt she feels over her actions plagues her throughout the story. It makes for a spellbinding juxtaposition with the intense rage she feels for the sheriff. Once Marian becomes an integral part of her world, everything shifts for Robyn. She knows she should stay far, far away from Marian, but she has no control over her heart. Robyn finds herself in an impossible situation. How can she kill the man who executed her brother when it would mean ending the life of Marian’s father? This is just one of several complex puzzles Robyn has to solve. I loved how Burke made Robyn an intensely complicated character. There’s no black and white where Robyn’s concerned. She has to find her way through gray areas where good and bad are often blurred.
Marian is a feisty young woman with a remarkable character arc. She dreads her impending wedding to an older nobleman and knows the arranged marriage is merely a transaction that profits her father, the sheriff of Nottingham. She’s resigned to her fate even though she despises the idea of being married to a man she has no feelings for. She understands women are only chattel to be bartered with by men who see them as objects. She’s taken completely by surprise when she realizes she’s attracted to women. She struggles with this because she’s been raised to believe this type of love is ungodly. When she meets Robyn, she’s instantly taken with her and quickly works out Robyn is a woman concealing her identity by dressing as a man. As she becomes familiar with Robyn and her band of women and men, it opens her eyes to a way of life where women have agency. She sees alternatives to her repressive existence, and she decides she wants no part of the patriarchy that would have her lead an unremarkable and inauthentic life. Of course, being head over heels in love with Robyn is a big motivator. Watching Marian take control of her life, risk the comfort and privilege she was born into, and enter a world where women are not defined by the roles society has assigned them is absolutely liberating. Robyn may be the obvious hero in this story, but Marian’s journey was what kept me hooked.
The Writing Style
Burke has the amazing ability to bring a fictional world to life with her exceptional prose. She infuses every scene with minute details that go unnoticed until readers find themselves immersed in a landscape that’s undeniably rich and full-bodied. I read an unassuming passage describing the ground Robyn was walking on under a tree. Burke’s description transported me to the location so I could hear rustling leaves and feel and smell the loamy dirt. There’s something magical about her writing.
The story’s paced to perfection. It’s an action adventure, so the sense of urgency builds from the moment Robyn’s life is turned upside down. The scenes between Robyn and Marian provide a necessary break so readers can catch their breath and digest everything taking place.
The crowning jewel in this story is the LGBTQ representation in the cast of characters. There are femmes, bois, non-binary, and trans individuals inhabiting this world, and the way they identify and present themselves is never questioned. Robyn has known from a young age that she could only love a woman, and she’s just as comfortable in her male persona as she was presenting as female before she was forced into hiding. Marian, on the other hand, was raised to believe love is only acceptable when it’s between a man and a woman. Initially, she struggles with her feelings about Robyn, but there comes a point when she realizes her attraction to Robyn isn’t an aberration. She concludes that feelings so strong can only be natural, making them just as sacred in God’s eyes. Diversity and acceptance are a huge part of this book. Burke makes it clear these women and men have made the decision to live authentic lives. The beauty is in the way they all acknowledge each other’s choices and accept them without judgement.
With all the action and intrigue going on, there’s still room for this story to be wonderfully romantic. The attraction between Robyn and Marian is innocent and sexy at the same time. Both women are overwhelmed with the passionate sentiments they bring out in each other. Each of their meetings is loaded with intense feelings of yearning that neither of them can identify at first. Their courtship is touching, pure, and romantic. Suffice it to say, it’s swoon worthy.
Not a one.
Sometimes reviewing a book I really love is a tall order. There’s so much to say, and in my case, I want my review to match the impact the book has had on me. Nottingham is a perfect example of this. Burke has written yet another story that spoke to me on many levels. It appeals to my feminist sensibilities that have developed over a lifetime. It also speaks to the young girl in me who spent shirtless summers, climbing trees and having pretend sword fights with the little boys I grew up with only to face the disappointment that came when I was told, “Girls don’t do that.” Nottingham offered me a world where women can be their authentic selves. There’s room for all of us to be Robyn, Marian, Little John, or any of the characters who march to the beat of their own drums. Nottingham shouldn’t be missed. It might touch you as deeply as it did me, or at the very least, you’ll love this fun, romantic adventure.
Excerpt from Nottingham by Anna Burke
“Reward us with your silence, lady,” said the youth. “As well as the pleasure of your company.”
There. That look, wary beneath the sparkle of mischief. She cradled the drumstick in her hand, the meat momentarily forgotten. She’d seen that look before, and it hadn’t belonged to a youth. Those smooth cheeks had never felt the prick of a beard, and there were women at court who would kill for eyes that shape and color. Her heart pounded a little faster. Perhaps she wouldn’t have seen through the façade if she hadn’t spent so much time around Willa and her brother. The twins had switched wardrobes until their father beat them out of it, and the youth in front of Marian now looked like Willa had then, wearing clothes slightly too large for her as she questioned the place the world demanded she fill.
This youth was a girl.
“I won’t say anything,” Marian said, questions bubbling up as her rescuer smiled. She wanted to ask the stranger her name, and she wanted to ask what had driven her into the woods and what she was hiding from, for she was certainly hiding. The stolen meat and the dirt across her cheeks were proof of that. Instead, Marian took another bite of the goose and tried to wrap her throbbing head around her situation.
She was the daughter of the sheriff of Nottingham. Her father made his living hunting down men and women like her rescuers, and Marian knew exactly how far his gratitude would extend for their intervention on her behalf. He’d thank them as he hanged them. I won’t tell them who I really am, she decided. That would eliminate any foolish notions of asking for a reward or a pardon.
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Bits and Bobs
ISBN number: 9781612941653
Publisher: Bywater Books
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