Alternate Title: Full-Mental Alchemist
The Chick: Meg of Keyworth. A trained alchemist, she funded her secluded life with her sister Ada and her own research by selling handmade counterfeit emeralds. However, when her sister is wrongfully imprisoned, it becomes clear that someone considers Meg's abilities to be far more valuable than the fake gems she peddles, and will do anything to possess it.
The Rub: She's a blind pyromaniac whose only hope of rescuing her sister is the very man who put Ada away in the first place. However, she has no qualms against manipulating, lying, cheating, and stealing to gain some advantage for herself. Also, just a tad crazy.
Dream Casting: Pushing Daisies' Anna Friel.
The Dude: Will Scarlet - the legendary sidekick of Robin Hood. However, he and Robin are on the outs, he's given up on the altruistic-martyr-thief act, and works for the Sheriff of Nottingham because it's easy money. His charmed life comes to an abrupt end when his compatriots in the sheriff's service murder a nobleman and he's made the fall guy.
The Rub: There's only one witness to the murder who knows that Will didn't do it - and it's Meg. But she ain't talking unless there's something in it for her - preferably the rescue of her sister.
Dream Casting: Yummy younger Christian Slater. Yes, indeed.
Will: Yup, working for the sheriff is easy - so long as my pesky conscience doesn't get in the way.
Will's Boss: *murders an Earl*
Will: SHIT. Wait, you there! You saw I didn't do it!
Meg: Actually, I can't see anything.
Will: DOUBLE SHIT. Hey, you look familiar...
Meg: Maybe you met my sister.
Will: Oh yeah, when I arrested her... oh .... awwwwkard. Well, if I help you rescue your sister, will you help clear my name?
Meg: *punches Will in face* *poisons him* *ties him to a tree* Sure, why not?
Meg and Will: Ada, we're here to rescue you!
Ada: Bitch bitch whine moan bitch moan whine whine.
Meg: Gee, thanks.
Ada: Moan whine bitch, it's him or me, sis, make your choice, bitch whine moan.
Meg: I chose Ada.
Ada: Moan moan whine bitch moan whine whine.
Meg: Fuck it, I choose Will.
Ada: WHAT? Oh, moan moan moan...
Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Blind, Violent, Pyromaniac Heroine
1 Angsty Hero with Surrogate-Daddy Issues
1 Super-Secret Recipe for Fake Emeralds
1 Evil Sheriff
1 Bitchy Sister
1 Evil Ex
Several Chemically-Induced Explosions
2 Barrels of Greek Fire
Several Severe Arm and Hand Injuries
1 Secret Traitor
1 Case of Depression Cured by Abandonment in the Woods
The Word: Because I pimped out Carrie Lofty's widget on my blog, I was entered in and subsequently won a copy of her debut novel What a Scoundrel Wants, on the condition that I review it before January 2. Well, that's no problem for me - I review every romance I read, and this way I get a nice free book.
First, I should be honest and say that I'm not at all familiar with the Robin Hood myth. I saw the animated Disney movie when I was a kid, and Prince of Thieves a couple of times (although I did watch it again after I read this novel), but I just knew the basics - steal from the poor and give to the rich. I'd never heard of Will Scarlet, and had no idea of his background (it varies, apparently). So I came into this novel with no knowledge of Will Scarlet or his real connection to the famous Hood.
Did that hamper my enjoyment of the novel? Not a bit. As the novel opens, Will's working for the new Sheriff of Nottingham (and I do know enough of the story to know that this is not a good thing - the equivalent of Robin the Boy Wonder temping for the Joker's toy company). Will was supposed to be guarding Marian and her son Robert while Robin's off fighting the war in France, but circumstances (mostly involving his own angst and resentment at living in Robin's shadow), caused him to leave and find work elsewhere. Deciding "to Hell with giving to the poor! I want something for me!" he gets a cushy job doing dirty work for the Sheriff, including arresting a woman in the marketplace attempting to sell fake emeralds.
On what seems like a routine job, he and his band come across a local Earl and his men. To Will's horror, his co-workers rush the group and brutally murder the Earl and attack his followers. While all this is going on, Will hears screams and sees two of his compatriots fighting over who gets to rape their struggling female prisoner first. Will makes short work of them, although he gets injured in the process, and drags the woman to safety. However, his motives for saving the woman are not entirely altruistic.
He realizes that, as the newest recruit and the only one in his group who wasn't in on the plan to murder the Earl, he'll be the one blamed for the noble's death and the woman he rescued is the only living witness who can testify on his behalf. However, he encounters two obstacles to his plan - first, this woman (Meg) is blind and thus didn't see anything, and second, she's the sister of the counterfeiter he arrested and is the real creator of the fake emeralds.
Meg was traveling with the Earl in the hopes of rescuing her sister, and is outraged to have her quest cut short - and by the very scoundrel who arrested her sister in the first place! However, while she possesses a hard-won independence in many aspects of her life (like her alchemy), her blindness still forces her to rely on other people to get around - hence her determination to rescue a sister she really isn't all that fond of, and her willingness to stick with Will (after beating the crap out of him, first).
However, together in the woods after she tends his wounds, the loneliness of her isolated existence overwhelms her and she and Will share a passionate physical encounter. This does not suddenly make Meg all sunshine-and-butterflies for Will. Oh no. Not at all. She develops instead a fierce hatred for Will for sneaking past her closely-built walls - she views his physical effect on her as a personal, intentional violation. So she drugs Will and decides to risk the woods by herself. However, once Will recovers, he catches up to her, and further circumstances involving the evil Sheriff's plot force Will and Meg into an uneasy and unstable alliance.
And oh, it is unstable. So very, very unstable. I really enjoyed this novel, and the main reason for this is Meg. Oh, Meg. I loved her, in a "she's so crazy, but awesome" way. She's a blind character, but holy crap, she is a mad blind character. She lived a relatively normal life with her father and sister until a sudden raving fever overtook her and landed her in a coma for six months, depriving her of her sight. Society believed she was possessed by the devil and shunned her family, and her father subsequently severed any remaining ties by spending the rest of his life obsessively pursuing a cure. A few years after that, Meg discovered the full extent of her sister Ada's resentment for her dependent condition.
The result is Meg's "fuck society, ethics are for sissies" attitude. Society's rejection of her has left her with no moral qualms against manipulating, hurting, and using people for her own benefit. She double-crosses Will several times in the book because she either a) thinks she can score a better outcome for herself, or b) because she wants to punish Will and distance herself from feelings that threaten her carefully controlled lifestyle. She does some downright nasty and wrong things, but I couldn't help but love her for it. She isn't a shrinking violet or a shy recluse who hides her deformity - instead, she flaunts it and uses other people's shocked and nonplussed reactions to her benefit. However, she's not exactly a person who's content and zen with being blind, either - she still longs for colours and becomes obsessed with the details of Will's appearance that she can't make out by touching. Her connection with colour also translates into a manic fascination with fire, an element she dreams about constantly and is the only thing she remembers about her coma.
And when she's threatened, SHE WILL CUT YOU LIKE A BITCH. You wouldn't expect a handicapped female character to resort to such physical means of expressing her displeasure, but wow. She punches, kicks, bites and launches herself at people who piss her off with waving fists of fury. During one delightful interchange with Will, early on in the book, she responds to a quip from Will by grabbing on his balls and yanking. Hard.
Of course, the closer that Will and Meg become, the more they rely on verbal, rather than physical sparring, and Carrie Lofty has a zinging way with dialogue that keeps the language fairly contemporary although she does sprinkle some medieval words in.
As for Will, while he was nice enough at the start of the novel, he was more or less eclipsed by Meg and her crazy antics. Mostly, his problems were less concrete than hers, and more founded on angst and pent-up resentment against Robin Hood, a figure he hates and loves both. I found I couldn't really understand his motivations at the beginning of the novel, primarily his stubborn determination not to be altruistic and the difficulty for him to embrace his naturally heroic side. Meg and Will are both fundamentally selfish characters at the start, but I had a better time understanding how Meg became that way than Will.
However, by the second half, Will starts to redeem himself, as it becomes apparent that as a character, he's the base that neutralizes Meg's acid (romance explained through SCIENCE!). He's a quieter, subtler character who provides a nice foil for Meg's ferociousness and keeps her from becoming too over-the-top. He's the one in their relationship who recognizes his love first, and works at cracking Meg's shell in a refreshingly open way. The main obstacle to their romance (other than the obvious villains with swords) is Meg's meticulously guarded exterior, and to my everlasting delight, Will learns a thing or two from Meg's unscrupulous methods and plays dirty to earn and keep her feelings.
My favourite part - Here Be Spoilers - is after a fire set by the villains severely burns Meg's hands. Wrapped in bandages, she can't feel anything, not even pain. While she's become used to her blindness, she always counted on being able to feel Will, and the threat of losing sensation in her hands sends her into a listless depression that separates her from her lover.
What does Will do? He, dear man, drags her bodily out of bed, takes her to the middle of the woods, gives her a walking stick, and tells her to find her way home on her own.
Then he leaves her there.
You'd think abandoning a blind woman in the woods would be a terrible and entirely unromantic thing to do, but in this case, it works. I recognized her as such a fierce and ballsy and take-no-prisoners character that dumping her alone in the woods and forcing her to rely on her bald wits as she's done her entire life comes across as the perfect solution.
In this novel, the characters live a medieval setting, one that's not the most common in romance but one that I recognize from my history of reading epic fantasies, and Carrie Lofty does not disappoint in her description. She has a cunning sort of writing style, describing things with words you don't quite expect and that don't always fit but convey the precise image or sound or smell that's occuring at the time. There is also a great deal of violence and bloodshed, so if you're squeamish about thumbs popping or throats being slashed, um, don't read this novel.
Lofty's descriptions of Meg's alchemical methods were also engrossing - using such simple elements as, say, sugar, Meg creates enough explosives and smoke bombs to double as Medieval Batman. The author describes Meg's methods and some of her recipes but always melds it into the story, giving just enough information to keep from becoming an infodump or from detracting from the main plot, which isn't really about alchemy or science at all but rather about simple greed and power-grabbing.
The only flaw I could see in the novel was with Will's background and motivations - even by the end of the novel, when he faces down Robin and comes into his own, I couldn't really understand the initial source of his angst with Robin and his turn to the dark side (or at least the "shady work for money" side) that made the beginning of the novel possible. Maybe this was because I had no prior knowledge of the Will Scarlet character, but all the same... At least in the first half of the novel, it was difficult to see him as a real character because his personal reasons seemed so hazy. Thankfully, by the second half he jettisons most of his clinging issues and focuses on Meg, and his real character, as a hero of cunning rather than brute force, emerges.