I finally finished the last book in the King Raven Trilogy, a great retelling of the Robin Hood legend. Here’s my review of the series.
Book: The King Raven Trilogy (Hood, Scarlet, Tuck)
Author: Stephen R. Lawhead
More info: Amazon listing here*
Plot Overview: The trilogy recounts the “original” Robin Hood story, set in Middle Ages Wales. The first book, Hood, contains the origin story of Rhi Bran (Robin), the outcast king on the run from the invading Ffreinc army. Some of the other traditional Robin Hood characters are introduced as well; Little John, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marian. Because the story is set in Wales the characters’ names are Celtic variants of the familiars ones we all know, which is fun. I enjoyed the storyline in Hood, which included an interesting look into the political and religious setting of the time period, as well as a study of Bran’s character. His trials humble him and the influence of his mentor, a religious “wise-woman,” really changes him from selfish man to a strong leader. His character is believable and multi-dimensional, a nice change from the stock male characters present in so many Christian fiction books.
The second book in the series, Scarlet, was my favorite. It centers on William Scatlocke (better know to us as Will Scarlet), and how he becomes a part of Bran’s Grellon, i.e. the “band of merry men.” The book is written in first-person from Scarlet’s perspective, switching between present and past tense. It took me a few chapters to get used to this, but once I did I found it really enjoyable. Scarlet is mostly an action-adventure story, complete with lots of archery, disguises, and “outlaw” behavior from Bran and his gang. It’s a fun, quick read, and has a nice, subtle romantic element as well.
Tuck was a good end to the series, but was my least favorite book of the three. The narrative switches back to past-tense third person, like Hood, which was fine to read, but not as engaging Scarlet. While Tuck introduced Alan a’Dale and wrapped up the story-arc nicely, it got bogged down in the middle. I think the book would have been much better were it about 100 pages shorter. My other issue was that there were so many characters by this time that all the Welshv names became confusing. The story includes names, words, and sometimes whole conversations in multiple languages (English, Welsh, French, Latin), which I think contributed to the “bogged down” feeling.
Pros: Overall, this is my favorite Robin Hood retelling (and I’ve read quite a few). I enjoyed the Middle-Ages-Wales setting because it was so different than the typical England-during-the-Crusades background. Lawhead clearly did his research and included a lot of great historical elements, like the political atmosphere, the influence (and corruption) of the Church, and the military environment of the day. The books also include some additional material on the historical elements included. It’s amazing how powerful a weapon the Welsh longbow was, and how much foreign armies feared it.
I enjoyed how the story contained all the traditional Robin Hood characters but gave them more depth than in most other tales. Rhi Bran himself was a very believable character; passionate, courageous, but imperfect. It was nice to see his character develop into a true leader, humbly relying on God and seeking advice from those he trusted. However, he never ceased to be a soldier and conducted his war realistically, killing enemies and losing some of his own soldiers as well. So much Christian fiction feminizes male characters and creates unrealistic stories where even soldiers don’t participate in the uglier sides of war. It was nice to have a story which explored mature themes like violence, diplomacy, collateral damage, authority, and nationalism.
The religious tones of the book were also a pleasant surprise. The Christianity presented in the story was woven with Celtic mythology/spiritualism which portrayed a unique view of God. I found it to be a refreshing change from most Christian fiction. However. . .
Cons: Those readers looking for a traditional evangelical portrayal of Christianity will be disappointed. God is real and praised through wonder at his creation, but Jesus is not really mentioned. Some of the characters, Tuck in particular, have a very close personal relationship with God, though several elements of Catholicism, like prayer to saints, are maintained. There are plenty of members of the Roman Catholic Church who are clearly not true believers but are using the might of the Church for their own personal gain. Historically true, perhaps, but still a little depressing to see so much abuse of power.
The book contains many descriptions of war violence, as well as mistreatment of civilians by corrupt authorities. The body count throughout the series is quite high, including a couple very emotional deaths in Tuck. Some of Bran’s military strategies rely on creating fear, including a few creepy displays of animal remains. There is a some adult language, primarily the expletive use of bodily functions and a few harsh insults. The language is not excessive, however, and is used appropriately.
Summary: I really enjoyed this series, despite the last book being too long. There was lots of action, a realistic and flawed protagonist, and exceptionally well-written historical details. I enjoyed learning about the Welsh culture and the intricacies of political and religious power. One of my favorite things was recreating Bran’s character as a freedom fighter instead of a wealth re-distributrionist. It was compelling to see him fight for the rights of his people against a tyrannical and corrupt government.
I would recommend this series to anyone who is a fan of historical fiction and looking for something deeper than the typical historical fiction romance. The books require a good amount of attention to detail and willingness to work through the multiple languages used. The Welsh words and names are especially difficult, though there is a pronunciation guide included.
I wouldn’t recommend King Raven for kids younger than 13, mostly because some of the political/religious themes may be too mature to hold a younger reader’s interest. However, I think this series would be an excellent read-aloud for homeschoolers looking to supplement their history textbooks with something more engaging than a list of facts and dates. I’m already planning on using this series with my Little Ones when they are old enough, probably combined with some archery lessons.
I enjoyed King Raven, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Lawhead’s books in the near future.