As book reviews go, this one is actually one of the more difficult ones I've tried to write. I say that not because I have any reservations about whether or not I liked this book - no contest there, I totally loved it. The difficulty stems more from trying to describe a very intricate plot, explain exactly why I liked it, and trying to cram all of it into a readable & *marginally* concise review:P
Everyone, and most especially romance readers, has some sort of preconception - be it literary or cinematically based - regarding the Robin Hood legend and the familiar characters many of us have known and loved since childhood. For me, it was Erroll Flynn in those impossibly gay green tights, which didn't seem so impossibly gay when I was 10 years old and suffering from a major crush on a guy who I later found out (much to my annoyance) died about a year before I was even born:P What a bummer. Erroll was hawt. When Kevin Costner did Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves back in 1991, I was in near ecstasies. I certainly thought Kevin was hawt at the time, so this worked for me. Coincidentally, Marsha Canham released the first book in her Robin Hood trilogy: Through A Dark Mist, later that same year, and though I discovered them some years later, anything I have read since that deals with the Robin Hood legend has had that series to measure up to as well. Enter Carrie Lofty and What A Scoundrel Wants...
Lofty doesn't attempt anything so ambitious as rewriting her own version of the Robin Hood legend. A wise move for a new author, in my opinion. What she did instead was write something that could respectably dovetail with almost every other popular adaptation of Robin Hood - most especially with Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. What A Scoundrel Wants could very nearly pick right up where the film leaves off.
Will Scarlet is the hero of this tale, and rest assured, flawed though he may well be, Lofty's Will is very much a hero. Beta male and rebellious as ever about building a life in the shadow of Robin Hood (his uncle in this case), he sets out to make a life of wine, women & song for himself, employed by the new sheriff of Nottingham. As sheriffs go, the new guy is actually quite a bit nastier than Alan Rickman was in Prince of Thieves, and not nearly as entertaining.
Unfortunately for Will, he is also set up to be the patsy in one of the sheriff's nefarious plots, and in the process of extricating himself from a very sticky and life-threatening situation, he comes to the aid of a lady in distress (another potential patsy), the heroine, Meg of Keyworth. Meg is a very brilliant and gifted alchemist, shunned by the local populace as being a mad witch. She's blind due to a childhood illness (meningitis), stubborn & prickly in a way that other romance heroines tend to merely flirt with being, and she was on her way to Nottingham to rescue her sister Ada from gaol, where she has been held since Will arrested her on the sheriff's behalf a few days previously. She has also discovered how to create counterfeit emeralds, which her sister was arrested attempting to sell.
Will rescues Meg and leads her off into the forest, thinking she can clear him from any wrongdoing in the murder of a local nobleman. Once he realizes she's blind, and then discovers her identity, he offers to lead her to Nottingham himself, thinking he can somehow barter her to clear himself. Upon discovering Will's identity, Meg realizes that he's the man who arrested her sister and that she can't trust him, and she sets out to lose him.
In the process of tending to Will's injuries, Meg finds herself very strongly attracted to Will, and they have a brief and very unexpected sexual encounter. She sedates him & slinks away, because she knows she can't trust him or herself around him. They are quickly reunited however, when Will is captured by a band of outlaw foresters, led by a thief & scoundrel named Hugo, who seems to have taken it upon himself to fill the vacant shoes of Robin Hood. In a nutshell, Hugo is a swine, and Meg stumbles across the outlaws in the process of hanging Will and the murdered local nobleman's son, who they captured in the forest. Meg persuades Hugo - who she has a "history" with - to release Will and the nobleman, and they set out once again to rescue Ada. Meg isn't pleased to be back with Will, but recognizing that he has saved her life more than once, she resolves to use him in her quest to free her sister, and then part company with him at the earliest opportunity. Will realizes by now that Meg is the one who made the counterfeit emeralds, and that he can use her to keep his neck out of the hangman's noose. And, of course, during all of this mutual plotting and planning Meg and Will are *still* very attracted to each other...
Sound complicated? It is. But it works well in terms of building suspense and a fair degree of sexual tension between the H&H. The external conflict keeps Meg & Will together and forced to depend on one another, and in the process allows their relationship a chance to develop. It's rocky and very mutually self-serving at first, but both characters develop well in the process, as their initial impressions of each other begin to change. Meg continues to be stubborn and more than a little annoying, but when Will comes through for her when it really counts, she realizes just exactly what sort of man he is - he's a hero.
I can't say that everyone is going to appreciate Meg as a heroine. I found her very difficult to warm to at first myself. Will is no saint either though, and in terms of what his brain tells him he should do in the interests of self-preservation, Meg isn't far off the mark when it comes to character assessment. From the moment that he encounters her however, he never actually does take the easy road and act in his own self-interest. It's not quite the complete journey to accepting himself as a noble and self-sacrificing hero; his illustrious uncle's equal in any way. But he's on the right track and he does get there eventually, once he's able to face Robin again and they can finally resolve past differences and misunderstandings.
And Robin Hood, once he does arrive in the story, is the perfect compliment to Will as a brother-in-arms, rather than as a cardboard prop, or as a rival for Will's place as the hero of this story. Lofty manages to write him, his contribution to resolving the external conflict, and his oftentimes troubled relationship with Will in such a way as to lose nothing of his larger than life heroic character, nor does she allow him to upstage Will. In other words, Robin Hood has more than just a walk-on role in the story, but from beginning to end, Will Scarlet is the hero.
I very highly recommend this story, especially to historical lovers who enjoy highly visual action/adventure tales. Lofty can swashbuckle with the best of them, IMO. She has a very unique talent for taking something that should feel as familiar as an old shoe, and turning it into something original and unexpected. Her love scenes are at once steamy and so tender they'll curl your toes, her characters multi-faceted and interesting - even when they are less than perfect, sometimes downright despicable. I had a little difficulty with getting into their heads and fully understanding what exactly they thought they were doing at times, but always felt like I was in very capable hands with this author, and that everything would come together in the end. And it did, very well. Almost surprisingly well, from my point of view. I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did. The cover & title don't do it justice, in my opinion, but like the characters, it's what's inside that counts:)
Sensuality Rating: R