Coop de Book Review ~ The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley (Miss Carriger Recommends)

In which I review The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley…

OK, part of the reason I chose this book was because McKinley’s backlist (or at least some of it) was finally put up in ebook form. I’ve been on a quest to move (or donate) as many of my old mass markets as possible (when one lives in 600 square feet, one makes sacrifices). So when an ebook of an old favorite comes along I re-buy it. Don’t worry, I am still left with a ton of books (so many are still OP).

The Outlaws of Sherwood was not one of those I kept. I got rid of it on my third trek to live in Europe. I’ve always enjoyed it, but it is very sad. Or that’s what I remembered. And I wasn’t wrong.

From here on out there are spoilers, so be warned.

There are conceits I really like about this book. The fact that Robin is a reluctant hero and leader (“He did not like it that they deferred to him so easily.”), and that he isn’t a very good marksmen. Is fun to see how McKinley plays with the legend. McKinley talks a bit about the politics and her reasoning behind the historical setting and owns her own doubts and issues with these parts of the story. Any flaws there don’t really bother me as much as they would were I a medievalist. But I’ve never paid much attention to the time period as an archaeologist (ugly pottery) and so I give her a pass. I even don’t mind the whole lack of Nottingham caves thing, after all, this book was written before the internet.

I did, however, struggle a bit with Robin’s character. There is a conversation between Cecily and Little John near the end of the book, as follows:

“Little John said, “You do not think Robin is a stupid man.” 
She almost laughed. “No. He may be the most terrifying person I have met—because you believe what he tells you even when you know better. And yet I think he would quench that fire in him if he could—perhaps because it throws such dark shadows around the things he does not say.”

I just never got this from descriptions of Robin and his behavior, I never felt I was shown this through the story, although I do love Cecily’s assessment of the situation. While I don’t mind being told, I’m not certain I believe. In building him up as primarily a reluctant hero, I found myself unconvinced on his leadership abilities. As McKinley herself writes, “I needed him to be a particular kind of hero with a particular set of preoccupations, surrounded by a company of people with preoccupations of their own.”

Although, I did believe in his friendship with others.

The dogs stopped, confused, but the bows behind Will’s back stayed stretched. 
“I have the right-hand one in my eye,” murmured Marian; “and I the left,” replied Robin. “I am content with the center,” said Much.

Perhaps my lack of faith in Robin has something to do with McKinley’s style of writing. She is one of those miraculous and wonderful writers who’s power is often vested the things she leave unwritten. Here’s an example…

He looked at her a moment longer, but when she lifted her eyes to meet his something happened to his face, and he turned away, and picked up the little pot of tallow again.

We aren’t told what happened to Little John’s face, or anything really about his inner feelings but we nevertheless know that he is half in love with Cecily and uncomfortable with his own realization. Here is another example:

“I think that we cannot go back to Greentree, and be as we were.” He shrugged again—and winced; and brought his eyes back to Sir Richard. “And perhaps it is only the bruises which speak this way.”

You see? Masterful.

Normally, this style works so very well for McKinley, but for me it made Robin’s character fall flat. Also while I like the love affair between Robin and Marian, I found it less interesting than those of the side characters such as Little John and Cecily and even Sybil and Eva.

That said, I had forgotten her twist near the end, that is no twist because Marian turns it down.

“But to you, too, Marian of Trafford, I give a choice; and yet what I ask of you might be a thing more hard than soldiering.” He stopped, turned, and faced her. “I would make you the new sheriff of Nottingham.”

I actually gasped out loud, between my tears, at this juncture. Yes, I spent most of the final 1/4 of the book in tears from the last stand battled against Guy (told from Tuck’s perspective) to the denouement (or should I say deus ex machina?) of Richard and his conscription.

Enough of the things I found not precisely to my liking.

What do I still love about Outlaws of Sherwood?  Enough to remember this book decades later a put it on my re-buy and reread list.

Will Scarlet

“A great hulking tatterdemalion like this and you have not treed him?

…and Robin thought, perhaps he has learnt to use his charm so forcefully because his life has not been so easy as I would make it.

I adore the character of Will Scarlet in the legend of Robin Hood, always have. And I love McKinley’s descriptions of him. (Although, I don’t see him as a blond. But that is a minor quibble.)

“I have thought, every time I fled from you, of how much I missed you.…” Her voice trailed away, and Will held out his arms, and Cecily went to him. They stood silently, and he stroked her ragged hair, and she sighed and leaned against him as if exhausted.

Little John

“You cannot be as large as I am without knowing that everyone else is smaller.”

Much as I do not imagine Will as a blond, I can’t imagine Little John as anything but blond. But that is irrelevant to his being one of my all favorites in this book.

“Little John, you do not understand the art of conversation,” said Much. 
“I understand the art of silence,” said Little John.

Robin seems very fond of Little John as well and there is sense that he understands his friend’s skills and weaknesses. Perhaps this is part of the way we are being shown what a good leader Robin is, but for me it came across more as Robin being a good friend. Anyway, when Cecil first stumbles amongst them, Robin says to Little John that Cecil will be “Intimidated into behaving himself. It is a thing I value you for. I am over-inclined to yell, and I cannot loom as you do.”

McKinley’s Little John, now that I think about it, perhaps informed Floote and to a certain extent Percival and Pillover. I love competent grumpy men who don’t say much. They make me happy.


“And I’ve woken up every morning since I ran away hoping that I might have one more day of it—even these last days.”

As the girl who disguises herself as a boy it should come as no surprise, I hope, to you Gentle Reader that Cecily is my favorite character. When I originally read the book I can’t recall if I figured it out or not. I mean, that he was a she.

Let him not be some mad lord’s only son, thought Robin, suddenly daunted. Some day we will accept someone into our company whom Sherwood cannot hold.

“But I hope his peevishness is not important. I do not like secrets; Greentree is crowded enough without them.”

The revelation when it finally comes is no surprise but it is charming. Even if the actual event occurs off screen in a very Greek drama kind of way. 

Little John, watching her standing next to her brother, half-glowering in the old Cecil manner and half-comforted by Robin’s words, saw for a moment what it had been like for her as Will’s little sister. Some of what she was good at, and some of what she was bad at, as his pupil, came clear to him in that moment; and something else came clear to him too, but he set it aside so quickly that he allowed himself not to recognise it for what it was.

Of course I also love the relationship between Cecily with all her rashness and brashness and Little John with all his large silence. They both battle hidden anger that comes from fear, but you can understand even before her secret is revealed why they gravitated towards one another. 

“Will’s little sister saved my life,” Little John added as if inconsequentially.

I have one last thing to note about this book, which I know I didn’t realize on my original read. It’s third person omniscient, AKA head hopping. Now Soulless is also a head hopping novel, and frankly I tend to rather like them as a reader. I enjoying knowing what other characters are thinking and I may go back and write some more myself. Possibly this has to do with being raised on Dickens but it just doesn’t bother me. It’s one of the things I like about a lot of romance novels. So nothing really to say about the head hop, only noting that it is there.


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Quote of the Day:
“The covered bowl proved to contain pickles so powerful that the reek of vinegar when the friar removed the lid made Much’s eyes water, who sat nearest. The pot contained a vegetable stew of uncertain origin; and the dubious wrappings did contain cheese, of a potency, in its way, to rival the pickles.”
~ Robin McKinley

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Posted by Gail Carriger

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  1. Kat Berry said:

    I kept thinking each time the outlaws would vanish into the woods, "I bet they don't have poison oak/ivy/sumac there."


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