When you think death is inevitable, part of you, some bone-deep animal part, wants to lie down and accept it.Betsy Cornwell, The Forest Queen
I recently finished Betsy Cornwell’s The Forest Queen. It’s a retelling of the Robin Hood legend set in the same fantasy world that she set her Mechanica duology in. It’s far in the past from when Mechanica takes place (and “The Forest Queen” is mentioned as a legend the characters are familiar with in those books), so the world feels pretty different. The creepy clergy are still there and still have too much power, but it seems likely before the Estingers meet or even seem to know about the Fairies. So this is an entirely magic and steampunk-like technology free story.
This book flips the genders on most of the characters in the Robin Hood story. Robin becomes Silviana, the Lady of Loughsley, who runs away to the forest to escape her cruel brother John, the Sheriff. Her companions are Little Jane, Mae Tuck, Alana Dale, etc. There are, of course, men in the forest with her, but only one (Bird, her childhood friend) plays much of a role. The others have names and personalities and backgrounds, but are more or less just the Merry Men (a phrase not appearing in the book, but appropriate for describing them). Scarlet and Much become owls. Yeah, no idea, but it’s cute.
Reversing the genders adds some shades to the story that aren’t there when it’s largely men who are rebelling. There are elements of sexism throughout and the very danger inherent in being female around powerful and cruel men is very, very present. So present that Little Jane is pregnant from having been raped by a powerful man when we first meet her in the book. This adds some interesting darkness and a different kind of solidity to the threat than typically exists. We aren’t just afraid of John because he tortures people and taxes the poor to death (literally, whether it’s via starvation or hanging for being unable to pay), we are also afraid of John because he is a very real and present sexual threat to some of our main characters. That could have been a very risky move with the story, but Cornwell handles it beautifully and it results in an amazingly nuanced and psychologically powerful story.
I didn’t have time to worry about why I was the one leading them, or why they were following my orders. I knew what the Forest Queen had to do.Betsy Cornwell, The Forest Queen
Much like Mechanica and Venturess, this book moves fairly slowly and feels a little long sometimes, but the world is so beautifully painted and the characters, even the background ones, are lovingly three-dimensional. And as much as the story focuses exclusively on the beginning of Silviana’s “career” as The Forest Queen, I really appreciated that it did not leave itself any real opening for a sequel about her. The story is solid as it is and I have a lot of respect for Cornwell for realizing that.
As Robin Hood retellings go, this isn’t my favorite ever, but it will definitely remain on my shelf as an important one because it does manage to bring some very real elements to the tale in such a powerful way. I am so glad that I read this one!