Emily Joy reviews Nottingham by Anna Burke

Nottingham by Anna Burke

“They will remember when Nottingham’s daughters rose up against you when no one else dared.”

Let’s talk about medieval queer women. Okay, actually, let’s talk about Nottingham by Anna Burke. This is the fourth lesbian Robin Hood retelling I’ve read, and I think this one is my favorite. All of them had some things I liked, and others that I didn’t. Nottingham is no exception. What I loved most about this particular retelling was the effort the author made to represent medieval queer women as they may have really lived and felt.

For me, I feel it’s a disservice to our LGBTQ ancestors to represent them in a contemporary fashion that doesn’t reflect the actual realities of their lives in historical context. I have a hard time with queer historical fiction that invents or overwrites queer history rather than representing it. Of course, other readers may feel that there’s too much sorrow in the past and prefer to read fiction that is more optimistic and uplifting. I get that! I think Anna Burke understands as well, and Nottingham walks a fine line between representing queer history and also providing a positive, hopeful, and mostly believable narrative for these historic and fictional characters.

I have previously researched queer women in the middle ages, and there are several passages that reference specific medieval beliefs and practices concerning homosexuality. It was exciting for me to read those parts and sit up and think, “I know this reference!”

Here’s one familiar reference that I was particularly excited to find:

“[E]veryone knew that women needed stimulation to prevent suffocation of the womb. Unmarried women could seek out a midwife to do the job for them until they could find a husband.”

I loved how much effort Burke put into her research as it relates to queer women in the medieval period. I did feel, however, that it fell slightly short in the overall representation of medieval women on the whole. Often, this book fell into the familiar misconceptions that women were relegated to an upper room to embroider or weave and wait to be sold off into an advantageous marriage. The plot heavily leans on this stereotype of women being helpless chattel and sometimes it acts as the primary influence for character decisions. It was disappointing to find a lack of representation of real historical women, especially when the research into queer history was so apparent. Of course, medieval women were not afforded the same rights that women are today, but they were also respected and powerful persons in their households and in society.

I love talking about history, but let’s talk about the story too!

Nottingham creates a truly original Robin Hood retelling, including some classic scenes, but also incorporates original and exciting content. When we meet Robyn she lives with her brother and sister-in-law in Nottingham. Together they struggle to make ends meet until things take a turn for the worse, and the only way forward in which Robyn can support her family is to turn outlaw. Gathering a group of other outlaws and fugitives, they work together to bring justice to Nottingham.

Robyn’s group is wonderfully queer and full of LGBTQ characters, including Little John, who is a trans man. At first, I was nervous about how the narrative would treat a trans character in a medieval setting, but I found it to be gracefully done and didn’t have any issues with it. It’s so much fun to read about a gang of LGBTQ outlaws fighting against the system! By recasting the story, it gained a little more social relevance in our contemporary world, as well as making for a fun read.

Without spoiling it, I want to add that Robyn’s character is primarily driven by a desire for revenge, and the progression of her goals in this book is excellent. I absolutely loved seeing her grow and develop throughout this book.

Elsewhere in the story, we have Marian, the sheriff’s daughter. As an interesting contrast between our two main characters, Robyn is well-aware that she is a lesbian and very comfortable with her attraction for women, but Marian is the opposite. Her story follows her experiences as she explores her newly recognized attraction to women. Although coming out stories are plentiful in LGBTQ fiction, I think the historical context offered through Marian’s perspective was both interesting and necessary to create a believable medieval social landscape. It might be a difficult read for some as she works through her religious beliefs and internalized shame. This section also includes some self-harm, so please read carefully if that is a difficult topic for you. But fear not! I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Marian’s journey does not end in heartache.

In fact, I spent much of the book really rooting for and eagerly awaiting the inevitable meet-cute between Robyn and Marian. I haven’t been as invested in a couple while reading in a long time, and this one was a real pleasure. Their relationship is subtle and takes time to develop, which gave me plenty of time to become truly invested. It was exciting to see them get to know each other and begin working together as the story progressed. It certainly helped matters that I’m a sucker for the trope of a love interest being somehow off-limits to the other, and casting Marian as the sheriff’s daughter provides a special brand of friction and drama that I enjoyed.

If you’re looking for a lesbian retelling of Robin Hood, I can wholeheartedly recommend Nottingham as your very first stop. While I’m disappointed that medieval women as a whole were so harshly stereotyped, the relationships and historically sensitive LGBTQ representation were enough to make me love this book despite a few misgivings. It has earned the number one spot on my list of lesbian Robin Hood retellings.

If you’re interested in reading up on LGBTQ medieval history during Pride Month, check out this resource page on medievalists.net, one of my favorite online resources for medieval history.

Emily Joy reviews Marian by Ella Lyons

Marian by Ella Lyons

Trigger warning for sexual assault

Marian by Ella Lyons is the very first lesbian Robin Hood retelling I read back in 2017, and I thought it was time to share my thoughts, after reviewing two other retellings for the Lesbrary. This book spurred me into reading as many lesbian Robin Hood novels as I could find, searching for the ideal book for me. Marian was the perfect place to start that search and promised a female Robin Hood and a lesbian romance.

Marian Banner is a young girl of fourteen, living in a small village where her father is revered for his earned position as a knight in King John’s retinue. As her father ascends in his position, Marian and her father move to Nottingham, where Marian meets Robin, a girl who dreams of becoming a knight and serving the king. The two quickly become friends, and after a short time begin to have deeper feelings for each other.

As a Robin Hood retelling, this novella acts as more of a prequel, and we see Robin and Marian develop into the heroes we’ve heard about in childhood. The familiar characters are few, limited to only Marian, Robin, Little John, Friar Tuck, and King John. (Typically, Robin Hood stories are set during King Richard’s reign, and John is still a prince. However, Marian is set after John has become King.) Notably, there is no Sheriff of Nottingham, and most of the Merry Men are not present either.

Rather than historical fiction, I think this book is best enjoyed as historical fantasy. The “historical” elements of this book stop with the names of the previous and current king. I don’t think the book suffers from this, however. Without the weight of being historical fiction, we are given two young queer girls who can freely determine their sexuality without the constraints of medieval society. Robin is forthright about her lack of desire for a husband, and Marian at once recognizes that she is the same.

Marian looked at [Robin] in surprise. It was something she’d long thought but never articulated; taking a husband sounded ridiculous. So many of the girls in Abyglen talked constantly of finding husbands and making babies, but to Marian it seemed like such an absurdity.

Without the limits of history, neither of the two girls ever express apprehension because of their attraction to each other, and the two have a very sweet adolescent romance, which is a pleasure to read. Several people around them even pick up on their attraction and are secretly pleased and supportive.

The only slightly odd thing about their young romance is that Robin and Marian kiss for the first time while bathing naked in a river, at the ages of fifteen (Robin) and fourteen (Marian), which feels a bit young.Shortly after this encounter, they are separated for three years, due to outside circumstances, and Part One of the book finishes.

Part Two begins when they reunite as older, more mature teenagers. Marian has learned how to use her femininity and place in court to her advantage and to the advantage of the poor, to whom she brings food, medicine, and money regularly. Meanwhile, Robin has achieved her dream, and will soon become a knight.

The problem for me is that I don’t understand who the target audience is for this book. While Part One makes up the book’s majority and feels very much aimed at younger readers, the second part of the book, which is much shorter, contains more graphic and mature content.

Marian is (somewhat graphically) sexually assaulted, and the same man physically abuses her. She also suffers verbal abuse, and he calls her a “whore”, and falsely accuses her of “fucking the knights in their beds”. While this kind of content certainly has its place in literature, I felt it was out of place in what otherwise felt like a middle-grade book.

I also didn’t appreciate Robin’s treatment of Marian in Part Two. When they meet again, grown up and much changed, Robin is very cold and cruel to Marian, because of a misunderstanding, and because she doesn’t approve of Marian’s new lifestyle. Robin’s treatment of Marian is not resolved until the very end, and the resolution made me uncomfortable in its execution.

Part One felt much younger, both because of the characters’ ages and the writing style. Part Two is much more obviously YA. These two vastly different types of story left me confused. I enjoyed both but having a more concentrated narrative in one style or the other might have made for a smoother reading experience.

In the end, I’m on the fence for this book. If you’re looking for a historically inclined Robin Hood retelling, or medieval historical fiction with a lesbian relationship… this is not it. If you want a sweet historical fantasy with two girls falling in love, give this a try! It’s short and sweet, and a quick read.

Emily Joy reviews Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane

Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane cover

Another lesbian Robin Hood retelling has arrived on the scene of my favorite niche. Usually, my Kindle does a poor job making recommendations for me, but in this particular instance, it was absolutely correct in advertising this book to me. As a self-professed amateur Robin Hood scholar and enthusiast, anything that combines my favorite English myth with queer ladies is something that I will read. My congratulations to my Kindle for its successful marketing algorithm.

In Heart of Sherwood by Edale Lane, Robyn of Locksley flees into Sherwood Forest after the Sheriff of Nottingham wrongfully takes her family’s manor and lands for himself. Disguising herself as a boy, she joins an outlaw gang and soon leads them into a new charitable cause. Meanwhile, Marian is an agent and spy for Queen Eleanor, keeping an eye on the Sheriff and Prince John and their doings in Nottingham. Together, the two young women work to help the queen acquire the funds to pay King Richard’s ransom, and stand against those who would use the poor for their own benefit.

This book is fairly straightforward as far as Robin Hood retellings go. Which is to say that it doesn’t act like a prequel or stray too far from the basic premise of the traditional story preserved in popular imagination: Robyn and her band of outlaws rob from the rich and give to the poor, Maid Marian is Robyn’s lady love, their chief enemies are the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John, and they are staunchly supportive of King Richard the Lionheart. If anyone is looking for a traditional Robin Hood novel with lesbians, this one will probably satisfy.

While it is traditional, it also does some new and interesting things with the story. I particularly enjoyed how Marian acted as a political spy for Queen Eleanor. She definitely had her own agency and a role to play within the story. Not only did she help provide information as a spy, but she also had parts in the bigger moments of action. I liked that Marian was allowed to play a feminine role, while still being involved and important in the action and plot. Often in more recent Robin Hood retellings, Marian’s character tends to be cast into the “not like other girls” category so she can be “one of the boys” instead. While that isn’t always a bad thing, I definitely enjoyed a Marian who used her status and power as a woman to her own advantage and the advantage of her cause.

Robyn and Marian’s relationship moves quickly, and although I would have enjoyed a bit of build-up, I liked that they are established as lovers early in the story. It makes room for the more politically-minded plot to take its course without being too encumbered by the romance.

There were times that the writing didn’t feel very polished. Some run-on sentences were clunky enough to disrupt my reading flow, and the research often felt extremely one-note, without much depth. But in my years-long pursuit of a good lesbian Robin Hood retelling… I forgave it.

Speaking of research, historical anachronisms somewhat deterred the overall more historical feel of this book. Notably, during a scene where Catholic Mass is being said, the characters use the post-Vatican II English Mass. I was raised Catholic, so the call-and-response on the page was almost laughably echoed in my head in perfect cadence, even though I haven’t been to church in years. I did find it very odd though, that this scene used English, rather than Latin, as it would have been in this time period. It also felt odd that the scene took a few pages to go through the service step by step, describing each significant part, despite not having any obvious connection to the plot. It felt like I took a break from the story and went to church.

Later, in the book Robyn goes through the process of trying to find equilibrium between her Catholic faith and her relationship with Marian. I think having religious LGBTQ characters is definitely important, but I did not expect to find it in Heart of Sherwood, and perhaps that is why I found the scenes dealing with Robyn’s internal struggle with religion more of a distraction than anything else. Despite any of my own misgivings, I do think that it resulted in a very positive portrayal of someone who can both be gay and still feel valid and accepted in their chosen religion.

Overall, I’m happy to recommend this book to anyone looking for a lesbian Robin Hood retelling. Although slightly clunky at times, it was a solid retelling with some particularly nice additions. It’s not going to earn a rank among my favorite Robin Hood retellings overall, but it’s definitely a wonderful addition to the growing number of lesbian Robin Hood books out there. I enjoyed this!

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.