The Outlaws of Sherwood: A strong contender in an overstuffed genre

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRobin Longbow, a lowly apprentice to the forester of Nottingham Forest, is on the way to Nottingham fair when he is waylaid by bullies. After he accidentally kills one of them, he is forced to flee and go into hiding. If he’s discovered by the sheriff of Nottingham, he’ll be hung by the regent who is sitting in for King Richard the Lionheart while he’s away fighting in Palestine.

But Robin’s friends Much and Marian see Robin’s exile as an opportunity to strike back at the regent and his Norman allies. They convince Robin to gather and lead a band of ragtag Saxon rebels against their enemies. Thus, Robin Hood becomes a symbol and a rallying point for Saxon resistance against Norman tyranny.

The Outlaws of Sherwood is a strong contender in the overstuffed Robin-Hood-legends genre. Robin McKinley’s version is beautifully written and, as it’s set in the context of the Norman-Saxon conflict and the Crusades, it highlights the historical issues of the day. (Interestingly, while McKinley deals with the topics of faith and justice in this novel, these qualities aren’t considered in relation to the Crusades.)

The Outlaws of Sherwood features many likeable characters including Robin, a reluctant hero who struggles to meet the physical and mental demands of his role, and Marian, a strong (stronger than Robin) half-Norman young woman who doesn’t seem totally out of place in her historical time period. There are other competent women, too, and the rest of the usual cast including Will Scarlett, Little John, and Friar Tuck. Each has his or her own reason for joining Robin Hood’s band of outlaws.The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

The ending of The Outlaws of Sherwood was unsettling (view this spoiler if you like: As a reward for excellent service, King Richard allows the outlaws to go fight with him in the Crusades …. um… yay?). But, other than that oddity, I enjoyed the story.

Tantor Media has recently produced an audio edition of The Outlaws of Sherwood which is nicely performed by Justine Eyre. She has a pretty and suitable English accent and does a good job with both female and male characters.

~Kat Hooper


The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsI’ve owned a paperback copy of The Outlaws of Sherwood, a retelling of the Robin Hood folktale, for ages, dating back to the days when I was auto-buying everything Robin McKinley wrote. It’s a very different type of book for her: a straightforward historical novel — no fantasy elements at all — telling how Robin came to be the leader of a band of outlaws in Sherwood Forest, and how several of the key members of his group came to join him. The focus here is on the different personalities in the group and how they interact with each other.

Robin has led a downtrodden life since his father, a far more gifted archer than Robin himself, died under rather suspicious circumstances. His boss, the Chief Forester, hates him as the son of the man who married the woman the Chief Forester wanted for himself, and his cronies have been bullying Robin. In their attempt to take Robin down, he strikes back with an arrow that kills one of the men (Robin was aiming at the man’s leg; his lack of archery skill backfires on him in a deadly way here, though it may have saved his life). Robin plans to run away, but Marian and Much, the miller’s son, find him and eventually convince a deeply reluctant Robin that forming a band of free men in Sherwood Forest is a better idea. He’ll be a symbol of Saxon freedom against the Norman oppressors.

The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsRobin’s group of outlaws gradually grows, with names both familiar (like Little John, Will Scarlet and Alan-a-dale) and unfamiliar (including several women who join their group). Marian remains in her father’s castle but uses her position to secretly supply the band with food and other necessities and spy for them. Robin decides to learn how to use his father’s longbow (an unusual type of bow at this time in history) and trains others in his band to make and use them as well, giving them an advantage over the sheriff’s men.

Interestingly, Robin himself is more of a beta hero in this story — as far from the Errol Flynn mold as can be imagined — and initially he’s more driven by events that happen to him than affirmatively taking action himself. As mentioned, he’s not much of an archer; Marian is the one with the real archery skills. This makes for an interesting twist on the famous archery contest story.

Robin McKinley has a gift for creating well-rounded characters with realistic problems and flaws, and an engaging writing style with a dry wit that periodically surfaces. Like the original Robin Hood tales, The Outlaws of Sherwood is an episodic type of novel, with a series of adventures and conflicts, and several twists on the original legends. It’s mostly a pleasant and enjoyable read, but there’s an extremely violent and bloody battle toward the end that is rather harrowing.

I agree with Kat about the oddness of the ending, and it’s not the most memorable of McKinley’s novels. But when I picked it up again for the first time in a couple of decades to refamiliarize myself with it before writing this review, it was difficult not to get lost in the pages of this book. If you’re interested in the Robin Hood legend, The Outlaws of Sherwood is worth checking out.

~Tadiana Jones

Published in 1988. Tantor Audio’s edition published in October 2019. Young Robin Longbow, subapprentice forester in the King’s Forest of Nottingham, must contend with the dislike of the Chief Forester, who bullies Robin in memory of his popular father. But Robin does not want to leave Nottingham or lose the title to his father’s small tenancy, because he is in love with a young lady named Marian – and keeps remembering that his mother too was gentry and married a common forester. Robin has been granted a rare holiday to go to the Nottingham Fair, where he will spend the day with his friends Much and Marian. But he is ambushed by a group of the Chief Forester’s cronies, who challenge him to an archery contest… and he accidentally kills one of them in self-defense. He knows his own life is forfeit. But Much and Marian convince him that perhaps his personal catastrophe is also an opportunity: an opportunity for a few stubborn Saxons to gather together in the secret heart of Sherwood Forest and strike back against the arrogance and injustice of the Norman overlords.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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