Will Scarlet is on the run.
Once the sheltered son of nobility, Will has become an exile. While his father, Lord Shackley, has been on the Crusades with King Richard, a treacherous plot to unseat Richard has swept across England, and Shackley House has fallen.
Will flees the only home he’s ever known into neighboring Sherwood Forest, where he joins the elusive gang of bandits known as the Merry Men. Among them are Gilbert, their cruel leader; a giant named John Little; a drunkard named Rob; and Much, an orphan girl disguised as a bandit boy.
This is the story of how a band of misfit outlaws become heroes of legend – thanks to one brave 13-year-old boy.
Will in Scarlet is a well-written, engaging middle-grade adventure which should appeal to both boys and girls. There’s plenty of action, beginning with a wolf hunt in the freezing midwinter and going on to trace Will’s transition from mischievous boy and heir to his father’s estate, to his life as an outlaw as he seeks first revenge, then justice. Violence and fighting are common, as indeed they were in that era, though Cody is careful to avoid anything overly graphic or gratuitous.
Character development is equally good, at least where Will is concerned; the things he experiences and learns change him in fundamental ways, eventually for the better. Much the Miller’s “son” (really a girl in disguise) is somewhat less developed and never quite becomes a main character, but she’s appealing nonetheless, with loads of courage and cunning and a slowly-growing respect for and friendship with Will. The other characters are interesting, though not fully fleshed-out; Little John is protective, Rob a drunken sot until he dries out, but with the charisma of a born leader. I found the sheriff of Nottingham particularly interesting, since he is not made into the deliberate villain; that dubious honor goes to Sir Guy of Gisborne.
Matthew Cody made an interesting choice in making a 13-year old Will Scarlet the focus of the book, rather than the much older Rob. He gives to Will the backstory and some of the attributes usually ascribed to Robin Hood: the lord’s son forced into exile by the machinations of Sir Guy; the nobleman turned outlaw who seeks economic justice for the poor. Cody also does an excellent job of laying out the political and economic landscape of 12th-century Britain; as Will comes to understand first the political risks he faces, and later the impact of feudalism, so does the reader. Cody ignores the Norman vs. Saxon conflict inherent in the Robin Hood myth, however. The book works without it, but I missed that element.
Only one other thing bothered me: in the beginning of the book, Nan (Will’s nurse) and Milo (a stable boy and Will’s partner in mischief) are rather important to Will, yet with the fall of the fortress, they disappear from his life and are not seen again. Of course, within the context of the story, it’s entirely possible that Will never does find out what happened to them, but the loose end left me vaguely unsettled and wondering if there is a sequel planned. It would certainly be possible to write one; there are several episodes from the Robin Hood mythos that Cody hasn’t used yet, including the famous longbow competition in Nottingham. I rather hope there is a sequel in the works!
In his biography, Matthew Cody says that he wanted to write books that would have grabbed his fifth-grade self’s interest and turned him into a reader. With Will in Scarlet, I think he has succeeded.
Rating: 4 stars
Category: MG historical fiction
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release date: October 8, 2013
Book source: Publisher review copy, via NetGalley
About the author: Originally from the Midwest, Matthew Cody now lives in New York City with his wife and son. When not writing books or goofing off with his family, he teaches creative writing to kids of all ages. (Biography courtesy of Goodreads. Read a more extensive bio on the author’s website.)