Tuesday Reviews Day: Scarlet, by A.C. Gaughen

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Detail of SCARLET cover art, illustrator unknown

Another Book Riot inclusion is raised from the ashes of the TBR pile to the Completed list, but this time with mixed emotions. Maybe it’s because I love reading so much, maybe it’s because I don’t branch out of my comfort zone enough, who knows, but for whatever reason I don’t seem to read a lot of books that I just flat-out do not like. Most of my reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and it’s probably easy for y’all to think that either I only post paid reviews or I just am easily pleased with any book. Neither of those things are true.

Personally, I don’t like reading negative reviews of books before I read them, because I want to avoid the possibility of being influenced by someone else’s dislikes. If you’re like me in that, you may want to skip today’s review, although this week’s review isn’t as much negative as it is a flat-line.

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Will Scarlet counts himself among Robin Hood’s merry men; one of the youngest of the four, Scarlet is arguably the best thief in the group, and he’s no slouch with a knife or bow, either. Robin Hood, John Little, and Much all know and fiercely guard Scarlet’s secret — Will Scarlet is actually a girl.

Scarlet is a runaway with a hidden past, but everything begins to fall apart when that past threatens to catch up to her. A new thief catcher comes to town, hired by the Sheriff of Nottingham to crack down on Robin Hood and the band, and this catcher is too familiar for Scarlet’s taste. As she struggles to decide between staying to serve the people or running to try to keep her friends safe, John Little tries to ratchet their friendship up a notch, leaving Scarlet to examine her feelings for John and Robin.

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I just am not really sure how I felt about Scarlet. I alternate between wanting to like it and being kind of angry about it.

The first near-half of the novel felt like I might be reading something middle grade (which I’ve done accidentally and still enjoyed), but halfway through I got whapped in the face with an entirely unexpected “G-d d–n.” I do not mind swearing. I don’t mind reading it, hearing it, saying it. But that particular phrase is one I never get used to. The author does a good job of incorporating period-appropriate insults and swears, but this was the first modern phrase I recall reading, and it was so jarring I stopped reading for a minute. The novel matured quickly from that point, with more frequent swearing, graphic violence bursting onto the scene, and a few thinly veiled insinuations of rape and assault.

Scarlet’s cross-dressing and relative distance from all of the men in her life threw another wrench into the novel, not just for her but for me as well. We’re told over and over her eyes give her away, she has to hide her eyes from the people pursuing her, and I get that dressing as a boy makes that easier. But I don’t understand why she doesn’t just cut her hair, and I’m still not sure how this squares with her apparent detachment from men. Her past does offer some explanation for that detachment, but not in relation to the love triangle, one that felt needlessly forced throughout the entire novel.

John Little is a creep who won’t take “no” for an answer, Robin is immature and distant yet expects transparency and devotion from Scarlet. Robin sets Scarlet’s heart aflutter, but she doesn’t seem interested in sex; instead, Robin’s physical attractiveness is described in terms that relate him more to freedom and safety than sex and physical desire, while her refusals of John are couched more in terms of danger and emotional detachment than in terms of sex or lack of attraction. The one time she does present femme, the book dwells on her discomfort with her appearance for several scenes. Honestly, she could have been (in my opinion) a great opportunity for an asexual character, or perhaps non-binary, because while she clearly is romantically attracted to Robin, she shows no interest in sex, and is even disgusted when a village girl kisses her. I just don’t entirely wrap my brain around a female character who presents male, is repulsed by sexuality, is romantically attracted to a single character only, and hates presenting femme but can’t just be ace or enby. I felt like the book tried to tie itself into knots to make Scarlet cis, but … she isn’t.

Pedantically, I never did get past the characters’ insistence on calling Robin Hood “Rob,” and it bothered me that Robin seems to trust Scarlet implicitly, yet he refuses to take her word that she and John are not in a relationship. In the way of inconsistencies, one character is introduced as a widowed barkeep, a detail that is highlighted for its uniqueness. Yet a scant ten pages later, it seemed, the widow’s life is in peril, and standing beside her is … her husband?

spoilers

Image: Still of River Song from Doctor Who; text reads “#spoilers.” Skip to TL;DR to avoid them, sweeties.

Also, I kept getting confused by everyone’s timeline. Based on the few clues you get to the relative ages of characters, Scarlet and Much are 18, while Robin and John are in their early- to mid-20s. Those ages make sense based on the time period, so that’s fine – but when it comes to her regal past, it’s hard to place where and when Scarlet picked up all her moves. She’s a skilled fighter, an excellent marksman, and a particularly stealthy thief. The question of her “low” speech is answered and makes sense, but who taught her to steal? To throw a knife? To shoot a bow? And that all says nothing of her forest acrobatics. It just seems like an astonishingly advanced skill set to learn in a period of just a couple of years.

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TL;DR

How I found it: A Book Riot box.
Genre: YA, historical fiction, alternate history, action/adventure
Does it pass the Bechdel test? No
Any content warnings?: Graphic violence, threats of rape/assault
Is it a standalone? No. There are two additional books in the series, Lady Thief and Lion Heart.
So what worked? The genderbent alt-history angle was super fun. I’ve always loved both of those things, and I didn’t realize how much I’d enjoy Robin Hood/medieval Europe fiction. I enjoyed the colloquial narration, and the worldbuilding was immersive, if only because it had such a broad existing canon to draw from.
What didn’t work? Scarlet has such potential for ace/non-binary representation, but it was all squandered. Everyone isn’t cis, there’s no need for all our characters to be either. Especially when the characters themselves don’t want to be cis. There were some continuity errors, and the shift in tone halfway through was almost comically jarring.

Overall: Despite how it sounds, I did like this book. I wanted to keep reading it, if only to find out what happened to the characters. But I don’t know if I liked it enough to read the rest of the trilogy, and while a part of me does want to know what happens, a larger part of me just wants to read spoilery reviews on Goodreads. It wasn’t great. But it could have been worse. Maybe it just wasn’t my thing, and maybe it’ll be yours. Maybe you won’t agree with a single thing I wrote! And that’s okay! Is it worth reading? I guess; it was cute and kind of bubblegum fun, and I did really like that the author included a bibliography for related reading. I don’t feel like it was time wasted to have read Scarlet, but I really doubt I’ll be reading it again.

 

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