Emily Joy reviews Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Outlaw by Niamh Murphy

Niamh Murphy had me with the title: Outlaw: A Lesbian Retelling of Robyn Hood. I didn’t need any more incentive to purchase this for my Kindle. Whenever there’s a new book with the promise of both lesbians and Robin Hood, I am bound to read it. My two primary reading interests are Robin Hood and lesbian literature, so there’s no getting around it. To my knowledge, this is the second lesbian retelling of Robin Hood. Or in this case, Robyn. (Marian by Ella Lyons is the other lesbian retelling, if you’d like to check it out!) Fair warning that I am a huge Robin Hood nerd, and this review reflects that.

Robyn Fitzwarren is the daughter of the Baron and Baroness of Loxley, just outside of Sherwood Forest. Marian de Staynton lives in the neighboring baronage of Leaford, and the two are childhood friends, and very close. Shortly after Robyn’s father departs on crusade with King Richard, a new sheriff is appointed over Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and things start to turn sour. Robyn, feeling responsible for the well-being of her family, enters the sheriff’s archery tournament, determined to win two hundred silver so that her family can pay the unfair taxes levied against them. However, in an unpredictable string of events, Robyn finds herself and her family in danger.

You might notice that my plot synopsis included very little about Marian, and that’s because Marian, and her relationship with Robyn is not a primary focus for this book. Instead it focuses almost exclusively on Robyn’s commitment to her family, and her efforts to protect them from the sheriff. I like that the book does not ignore the existence of families and parents, as some YA books tend to do.

However, I have to admit that the title led me to believe that Marian would have a greater role to play, or at least that the romance would be explored. As it is, Robyn and Marian kiss only once, and Marian is only present in maybe ten scenes. Most of the romantic narrative comes in the form of Robyn thinking about her while Robyn is hiding out in Sherwood Forest.

There are some very sweet moments, including one where Robyn goes to sleep in Marian’s bed seeking comfort and safety. It was so sweet that I nestled down deeper into my pillow with a silly grin. Sadly, such scenes are not in abundance in this book.

In some ways, the lack of focus on the romance between them is refreshing. It gives their relationship time to develop at a much slower speed, which feels natural in many ways. But with “a lesbian retelling” in the subtitle of the book, I definitely expected more. A second book is in the works, and I’m hoping Marian will have a bigger role next time.

Niamh Murphy makes some interesting choices with the traditional Robin Hood story, especially with her sheriff. In fact, the sheriff seems like a genuinely nice guy! He is in favor of good sportsmanship and prefers to play by the rules. Rather than the sheriff as a primary antagonist, it is his wife, Maud, who seeks power and revenge. Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes work that Maud does to overtax and harm the people of Nottingham goes unseen, and the sheriff gets most of the blame. He eventually does take on some of his more traditional characteristics, but I appreciated the slight departure from the usual inherently villainous sheriff.

Speaking of the sheriff, he is named for the same historical sheriff who was in power during King Richard’s absence! As soon as I read the name “William de Wendenal”, I had to smile. She also made use of the pagan character, “Green Man”, sometimes associated with Robin Hood, and instead applied Green Man-like qualities to her Little John character. Niamh Power did her research for many of the details in this book! My Robin Hood nerd heart was indeed happy. There is even a glossary linked at the end (although not included in the book itself) which explains some of the people, things, and locations mentioned in the book. While some Robin Hood books tend to be more medieval fantasy than historical fiction, I think Outlaw rest somewhere comfortably in between.

That being said, the book includes such language as “thee”, “thou”, and “art” to preserve a medieval style of speech and dialect. Personally, I found this to be more distracting than immersive, and it didn’t work for me. Things like “Cover me arse, will thou?” and other similar phrases didn’t sit well with me in the way they blend modern speech with older English. The writing itself, outside of the dialogue, also has a modern voice, and skipping from modern to older, while not difficult to follow, didn’t feel cohesive.

Sadly, Robyn didn’t work for me as a character. I didn’t feel like I understood her choices, and when something went wrong, her reactions felt over the top. The whole book felt like a competition for which new thing was the Worst Thing To Ever Happen, and resulted in Robyn having a breakdown every fifty pages or so. She was the main character, and was supposed to be a version of Robin Hood, but she wasn’t much of a hero. I don’t mind unlikely heroes, but the way she would constantly break down and then run away from friends and family because they “couldn’t understand” and she “had to deal with it alone” felt immature rather than vulnerable. It certainly didn’t come across as strength, either. I didn’t even particularly care enough to root for her most of the time, largely due to a lack of believability.

As a Robin Hood retelling, I do think this one works better than Marian by Ella Lyons. The Robin Hood elements are there, and used to guide and inform the story. As a Robin Hood enthusiast, I enjoyed this! It does interesting things with the legend, and some smaller details of the lore and history are included. If you’re specifically looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, this might work for you. For casual readers, however, I’m not sure this will be everyone’s cup of tea.

Shira Glassman reviews Marian by Ella Lyons

marian ella lyons

One way to describe Marian by Ella Lyons is that it’s a kiddie version of Heather Rose Jones’s Daughter of Mystery — both are costume dramas featuring a traditionally feminine lesbian with a nurturing personality and a lesbian swordfighter living in a world where it’s not customary for women to participate in combat, both feature father figures who a main character is both attached to and in opposition to, and both feature court intrigue — just to name a few similarities. So if you like the Alpennia books, rejoice because now there’s a young adult novel with a similar flavor.

The pitch for Marian is that it’s a f/f Robin Hood retelling, but I feel that does the book a disservice. The actual story is entirely new and original, only using the Robin Hood names as a springboard and small elements of the legend as landmarks that pop up in unexpected places. What we get is Marian, a teenaged girl who moves to the “big city” (for medieval, rural definitions of big) when her knighted father starts to rise in political power. She’s a bit of a fish out of water and bewildered about how to deal with snobby noblewomen and the king noticing her beauty, and the only person she feels truly comfortable around is the farm girl Robin. They eventually get separated by fate but come together again once Marian is eighteen and the stakes are higher.

I really enjoy when I can feel the chemistry between characters who are an endgame romance, and Marian delivers there, mostly because of dialogue between Marian and Robin that felt lifelike and natural to me (other than the repeated use of ‘cracking’ as a slang term by too many characters in too short of a span of pages, although that might just be my American-ness showing–forgive me.) I liked how subtle the girls’ connection is–it almost made me feel like I was just a femslash fan rather than someone purposely reading a f/f novel, which made the inevitable “it’s canon” scene even more satisfying. In other words if you are one of those people who wanted Anne Shirley and Diana Blythe or Jane Eyre and Helen Burns to be in love, this book will put you back in that place and then give you what you want.

I thought it was really good writing that the author establishes Marian — and her father and their changing life situations — as a fully rounded character before ever introducing Robin as a love interest. By the time Robin shows up I was totally invested in Marian and her hopes and her traumas. Incidentally, I was puzzled as to why there was a pound and a half of foreshadowing about everyone in town coming down with fever but then Marian’s father’s died a different way.

I never noticed Little John and King John having the same name before because the original legend doesn’t really make it relevant. But in this story, they interact and are in the same scene enough times that I noticed and I wanted to say that it was neat to see that in historical fiction of any kind–two people with the same common name. One doesn’t often run into that in fiction for the obvious reason that it might confuse the reader, but I think it’s neat because it’s super realistic.

A quote I liked, discussing the villain of the piece — King John, of course:

“His Majesty is always paying attention to you.”

“His Majesty is always paying attention to himself.”

To be honest the reason I’m giving this four stars instead of five is that I feel like the romantic resolution was a bit abrupt. I feel like the book’s climax was the climax of Marian’s story rather than the climax of the Marian/Robin romance. Also, there’s a moment when Marian assumes some bottles which could have been a lot of very scary things are the medicine she needs for someone, and she’s right, and that part made me smirk a little.

But other than that, it’s a totally captivating read with a well-rounded cast and evocative scenes, and definitely worth checking out.

Trigger warning for attempted but foiled sexual assault — another similarity with Daughter of Mystery, actually.

[Editor’s note: Also check out Danika’s review of Marian!]

Danika reviews Marian by Ella Lyons

marian ella lyons

How’s this for an elevator pitch?: Lesbian YA Robin Hood retelling. If you’re anything like me, that immediately added Marian by Ella Lyons to your TBR. There’s just one problem: that’s not exactly what Marian is.

This novella (135 pages) follows Marian, a daughter of a knight, who finds herself thrust out of her country home into the opulent castle of the king. She feels completely out of place attending balls and taking embroidery lessons, until she meets Robin Hood: a small, redheaded girl with a big personality.

This is cute lesbian historical fiction, but other than the names, it doesn’t have much to do with Robin Hood. She learns archery, but she’s trying to become a knight. And there’s no sense of mystery or disguise about that: her given name is Robin Hood, and she’s openly trying to be a knight as a woman. I feel like there were a lot of missed opportunities for shenanigans. There’s a Little John, but there’s no merry band of any gender. Robin doesn’t even steal from the rich and give to the poor, though Marian does a little bit of that.

I think that there were two ways that this book could have succeeded. One is if it didn’t bill itself as a Robin Hood retelling. It’s a good story! It’s bittersweet and deals with court politics, and I enjoyed Marian learning her way to scheme and use gossip/contacts to survive and even flourish in a restrictive environment. The romance between Robin and Marian is heartwarming, and their personalities are vibrant. I liked seeing Marian mature and make sacrifices while still remaining true to herself. But because I was expecting Robin Hood, I was always impatient for the “real” book to start. I wanted hijinks and medieval heists. I wanted Robin competing in the trials in disguise, and pulling off her hood theatrically to reveal herself as a woman when she won. I wanted a queer merry band! Those things are not present.

The other way I would’ve enjoyed this story more is if it were a prequel. It’s fairly common now for successful YA series to have ebook-only novellas to fill in backstory and offer bonus material, and this reminds me of one of those. It feels like the origin story of Marian and Robin Hood, not the story itself.

I would blame myself for having the wrong expectations for this book, but it does bill itself as “lesbian Robin Hood”. This isn’t a bad novella, but calling it lesbian Robin Hood and referencing that story didn’t do this story any favours.