I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a retelling, there are certain expectations I have that need to be met to make it a successful book. Retellings don’t need to be word for word, scene by scene the same as the original. But they need to uphold the spirit of the original story in whatever changes are made to the story. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies works because it’s essentially the same story but with an added layer of “bone-crunching zombie mayhem.” It’s exactly what is promised. The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell, while an interesting take on the classic Robin Hood tale, fails to hit the expectations promised by the synopsis and that gorgeous cover.
When Sylvie’s brother is named sheriff and takes over the family’s estate, she decides to run away from his abuse and into the woods with a friend. But soon, word spreads that there is a safe haven in the woods and maybe of the local commoners leave their homes and venture into the forest to live. Together, Sylvie believes they can fight the injustice her brother has inflicted and bring hope back to the land.
The Forest Queen is a poor excuse for a Robin Hood retelling. For one, it lacks any Robin Hood essentials. No heists. No robberies and exciting getaway plans. No stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Every once and a while they steal food from Loughsley’s storehouses, but it isn’t quite the same. They never run into any trouble. No guards. No Sheriff. Nada. And they don’t really “give” to the poor. They give to themselves and all the random people from the village that ran off to hide in the woods with them.
Second, the characters lack any Robin Hood qualities. Sylvie isn’t a female Robin Hood. She doesn’t do anything in the book. She just lets things happen to her over and over. Sure, she choose to run off into the woods with Little Jane and Robin, but once there? Nothing. She doesn’t make choices until it is absolutely necessary and even then, she isn’t the reason anything happens Instead, Bird, Sylvie’s best friend who also happens to be a guy, exhibits the Robin Hood qualities. (Defeating the purpose of this being a genderswapped Robin Hood retelling.) He knows how to hunt, how to sneak into places to steal, how to survive in the woods.
The other characters are so-so. Sylvia’s brother, John, is disgusting and frankly messed up. Mae Tuck exists to represent current social and political views. Alana Dale is thrown in there with no characterization or point as way to name drop well-known Robin Hood characters. And my favorite, Scarlet and Much, are reduced to owls. Owls. I’m not joking.
The one character I do like is Little Jane. Her character arc is the most compelling and moving. When Sylvie and Bird rescue her from hanging herself, they learn she’s pregnant. While it isn’t hard to guess who the father is and how she became with child, I admire that Little Jane keeps her baby. It is a moment of hope and resilience in the novel that I feel could have made for a better story.
As for the plot, nothing significant (after they run away of course) happens until around page 240. Out of a 296 page book. That’s bad. And even then, all the troubles they face, all the worries are mute. There is no tension. I didn’t worry over the characters’ survival because I just knew that the conflict would wrap up quickly and easily. Which it did.
There are passages of the writing that are good, though. The descriptions of the forest are beautiful, and there is a lot of potential with the idea. It just needs a few more drafts, a bit more depth to make it a good Robin Hood story. (And more heists. Where are the heists?)
I’m both sad and angry this book was allowed to be published, especially with such high hopes and a beautiful cover. I want to like it more, but as someone who loves the elements of the Robin Hood story, I can’t support a story that strips everything away except for names and places. If you need me, I’ll be rewatching episodes of BBC’s Robin Hood and pretending this book doesn’t exist.