The Ghosts of Sherwood (2020), a novella by Carrie Vaughn, was for me a frustrating story, with several strong aspects but also some elements that drove me crazy, leaving me overall disappointed but hopeful for its follow-up, The Heirs of Locksley.
As the titles make clear, Vaughn is working in Robin Hood territory here. More precisely, she picks up the story many years later. Robin of Locksley and his wife Marian live on the edge of Sherwood Forest with their three children: Mary, John, and Eleanor (in that order) and have thrived in relative peace after Robin oh-so-painfully swore fealty to King John after the death of King James. While bowing the knee gave him influence within the power circle of the kingdom, allowing him to protect not just his family but a much wider circle of “regular folk,” not every one of his former followers could stomach the thought, creating a rift amongst the old Merry Men. Now, though, old friends are forced back together after someone kidnaps the three children and, leaving Robin and Marian chasing after them while Mary, John, and Eleanor try to survive/escape using their own wits and abilities.
To begin with the positive, Vaughn does an excellent job concisely but effectively characterizing nearly all those who make up the novella’s cast, making each distinctive characters in their own right but also deftly delineating the relationships amongst them. Robin is granted a quiet, mature dignity in his later middle years, described as growing “more thoughtful, some of his starry brightness not dimmed, but turned inward.” We can see his mature wisdom when he is taunted by a drunken lout to prove his alleged marksmanship, and Marian, having “no idea what he was going to do,” thinks: “Twenty years ago Robin would have taken up the bow and shot the man’s cap off.” Now though, after a moment’s tension and consideration, Robin merely laughs and declines. He’s not a fully tamed creature, though. As noted, Marian here is still unsure which way he’ll tip, and when his children are threatened, Robin hesitates not a whit in not only going after them but promising to kill each and every one of their abductors. The old dog still has bite.
Other characters, meanwhile, match Robin’s strength. Marian is clearly an equal in their relationship, but even better, it’s a “rich” equality. What I mean by that is Vaughn doesn’t simply show her being able to speak up or disagree with Robin. Early on, she is the one in control, telling Robin via glances or touch to keep his mouth shut when needed. And when Robin springs on her that he’s negotiated a potential marriage for Mary, she doesn’t disagree by shouting or getting petulant. She accepts it to a degree, painting her as both pragmatic and realistic, but also refuses to let Robin off the hook by being the one to tell their daughter, as he hopes. It’s a measured, mature disagreement between two people with not just equal power in their relationship but also equal control and maturity, a more subtle portrayal than is often seen in these sorts of things. That isn’t to say Marian doesn’t get her more dangerous side on as well. Like Robin, she doesn’t at all hesitate to go after the children and, just as great, Robin offers a single word of possible objection and immediately backs down when it’s clear he has no say on the topic. Mary is the one most fully fleshed out amongst the children, on the cusp of childhood and adulthood and feeling all the complexity that entails. John is clearly enamored of his father’s legends and wants to live up to the family legacy, but we don’t get much of a sense of him beyond that. We get even less of Eleanor, who is quiet and smart and watchful.
Beyond characterization, the plot moves along quickly and smoothly. The setting is a bit thin but used effectively. And the moment when Robin is reunited with Little John is brief but warmly presented.
Turning to some more problematic issues, the villains are about as non-descript and two-dimensional as one can get, mere plot devices rather than actual characters. Worse, they’re utterly incompetent, with the plot relying completely on them being idiots. Even worse, one major plot point isn’t just implausible, but makes no sense at all. I think I went back and reread the scene three or four times because I was sure I must have just missed something. In fact, I just went back in and read it again before I noted it here, sure again such an obvious issue must be my misreading and not the author’s poor plotting. And then, I read it aloud to my wife, who immediately caught it. It’s an amazingly sloppy oversight.
Finally, the novella felt slight even for a novella. I actually zipped through The Ghosts of Sherwood so fast I that halfway through I checked to make sure I hadn’t downloaded an excerpt. This obviously isn’t a flaw; it’s a feature. But I did wish it was a longer, fuller story that allowed for more depth to the children, more lingering suspense. I don’t know if this is a targeted story, but I’d say it’s better suited in its brevity and simplicity to a Middle Grade or (younger) Young Adult.
How one reacts to the novella, therefore, may come down to how much such things bother you. I confess, I have a notoriously (amongst my friends) adverse reaction to idiots and idiot plots, not to mention glaring plot holes, so for me, those issues really spoiled the reading experience, which is too bad because I did enjoy the characterization. If you, on the other hand, have an easier time overlooking plot problems and shallow, none-too-bright villains, you’ll probably enjoy the story much more. A 2.5 for readers like me, a 3.5 for more tolerant ones (thus the three-star average at the top) or possibly a 4 for those who don’t mind either plot issues or the shorter length.
In The Ghosts of Sherwood (2020), the first of Carrie Vaughn’s two recent Robin Hood novellas, Vaughn revisits the lives of Robin of Locksley and Marian, some eighteen or twenty years after King Richard the Lionheart typically brings about the end of Robin Hood’s merrie (and highly illegal) adventures in Sherwood Forest. King John, for better or worse, has held the throne of England for many years now, and Robin and other barons have successfully pressed for the legal reforms that led to the signing of the Magna Carta. There are divisions between the nobles, however, and Robin of Locksley still has many enemies.
After an absence of many months, Robin and Marian are returning home to their three children: Mary, about age sixteen and a gifted archer; John, a few years younger, and Eleanor, about age nine, who is mute. The family is delighted to be reunited, though Mary and John have a habit of spatting and Marian is annoyed with Robin for arranging a marriage for Mary without consulting either her or Mary first, though Robin protests that he won’t force Mary’s hand. But the dust hasn’t even had time to settle before the three Locksley children are kidnapped.
The Ghosts of Sherwood is a light, quick read that captures the adventurous spirit of the classic Robin Hood tales, while adding some depth to the characters. Vaughn writes primarily from Marian’s and her daughter Mary’s points of view, splitting her time fairly equally between the two generations. She delves into the hearts of her characters, bringing them to life as they interact with each other and deal with the concerns of life in early thirteenth century England, and with the changes and new priorities that age and experience and family life bring.
Twenty years ago Robin would have taken up the bow and shot the man’s cap off. Marian felt him tense beside her. Gathering up his civility like scattered coins. For a moment, she had no idea what he was going to do.
The Ghosts of Sherwood is similar in style to Robin McKinley’s 1988 novel The Outlaws of Sherwood, if rather less harrowing in the climactic scene. In her blog, Vaughn comments: “it’s fun. It’s light. Robin and Marian get to keep their happy ending, they love and support their children. It’s about friends and family and standing together against the world … No matter how dark things get, Robin still has hope and still fights.” That sense of hopefulness and togetherness permeate the pages of this novella. It’s escapist, but it also suggests that loyalty, courage and love go a long way toward combatting the evils of this world.
The Ghosts of Sherwood is over too soon: it feels almost like the first several chapters of a longer work, rather than a stand-alone novella. And in fact, Vaughn has just published a second book in this ROBIN HOOD STORIES series, The Heirs of Locksley, which I dove into immediately upon finishing this one. Hopefully there will be more Locksley family stories to come!