Book Review: Nottingham, by Anna Burke
by Brittany B. | 10/21/2020
Those of you who know me or have read my reviews know that I am an absolute sucker for a well-crafted new take on paranormal stories as well as retellings or re-imaginings of classic fairy tales. So, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Nottingham, by Anna Burke, has been in my “to be read” pile for quite some time. Well, I’m here to tell you that I am so sad that I waited this long to read it – because it was everything I never knew I wanted from Robyn Hood’s story:
After a fateful hunting accident sends her on the run from the law, Robyn finds herself deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest. All she really wants to do is provide for her family and stay out of trouble, but when the damnable Sheriff of Nottingham levies the largest tax in the history of England, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands. Relying on the help of her merry band of misfits and the Sheriff’s intriguing—and off-limits—daughter, Marian, Robyn must find a way to pull off the biggest heist Sherwood has ever seen.
With both heart and freedom at stake, just how much is she willing to risk to ensure the safety of the ones she loves?
Nottingham is a delightful romp rife with bois bearing bows, transmen wielding quarterstaffs, noble ladies loving ladies bawdy bisexual musicians, naughty nonbinary outlaws, and saucy sapphic nuns—in other words, Robyn Hood like you’ve never seen her before.
This book was everything I wanted from a fairy tale retelling and then so much more. Nottingham is an origin story for Robyn Hood and her queer band of misfits in Sherwood forest and it absolutely kept me engaged from the moment I started reading until the very end. There is so much to love about this story that it’s hard to find a place to even start, especially because I don’t want to ruin any surprises that the book holds. But let’s start with the characters:
Robyn Hood, previously known as Robyn Fletcher, is a commoner who worked with her brother and sister-in-law selling arrows and bows in Nottingham. Through plot relevant events that I won’t get into, Robyn is forced into the woods to save everyone she holds dear. Here she begins meeting the people who become her found family of Sherwood. She meets John, who was once a blacksmith until he too, was forced to flee into the woods or face the noose. John and Robyn become survival partners after John makes a quick decision to help Robyn and protect her from the wrath of an outlaw, Siward, who calls himself the King of Greenwood and is known for despoiling women, raiding villages, and killing anyone who crosses him. Robyn’s band of people grow, adding more queer women, Robyn’s cousin, and a brother and sister.
I’m no expert on the time period in which the fables of the original Robin Hood took place, nor do I know the original source material more than what I watched as a child growing up in the 90’s (Disney’s animated Robin Hood from 1973 and then the 1993 live action film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, directed by Mel Brooks). But as this story is a retelling of Robin Hood, most of the character names were familiar to me (Little John, Will Scarlet, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Prince John, The Sheriff of Nottingham, and King Richard). All of these characters come into their classic fable names in a way that made me smile. John is the one who names most of the individuals in the band with their “outlaw” names:
Robyn didn’t need to ask for clarification. “Do I have to shave my head like yours?”
“No, but you can’t have hair past your waist, either.”
“It isn’t that long.” Robyn pulled her braid out from her tunic. It lay in her hands, dark and heavy with sweat.
“Cut it and keep your hood up. Nothing I can do about your face.” John gave her a critical look. “I suppose I could break your nose, but I don’t think that will do much either. You’re too pretty.”
“It’s not a compliment. Pretty faces get remembered.”
“What’s your name?”
“It’s Robyn. Like I told you.”
“No. It’s Robyn Hood. That hood needs to become as much a part of you as your bow. Do you understand?[from Chapter Nine]
This moment made me truly buy into this retelling of Robyn Hood and how the fable began to be about a man and his band of outlaws in Sherwood forest; Robyn heeds John’s advice and does everything in her power to appear a man when they are away from their camp or near a town. Being recognized could cost not only her life, but the lives of those she left behind.
I also really enjoyed Marian in this story. In the fables that I’m familiar with, I was used to Maid Marian being someone that the Sheriff of Nottingham wanted to marry but that wasn’t the case in Nottingham. Marian is the daughter of the Sheriff of Nottingham, which originally threw me for a bit of confusion, but in the end, it made for a much more meaningful character arc for her than had it been what I was used to. The reader gets to see Marian challenge her station in life and fight for her friends in a way that no one can fight for her (and not physically fight). And perhaps the most satisfying thing about her story arc is that although she is in distress in several parts of the story, she is never a damsel in distress who cannot save herself. She shows a growth of self-assurance and defiance against her father and the arranged marriage that she vehemently wants to nothing to do with and saves herself from various situations throughout the latter half of the book.
Burke uses the different life experiences and perspectives of Robyn and Marian to tell the story, alternating between the two women as the story progresses. For the most part, this held the tension in the story quite well! There were a few parts where the tension was slightly lacking, but when that did happen it was during a shorter chapter that I knew would put me back into something exciting once the chapter break hit. And, this might be a matter of personal taste, there was just enough pining and yearning for the romance to be successful, but at no point did I get frustrated or annoyed with either characters for focusing too much on their affection for the other. The two women were grounded in their lives and the people they were trying to protect and were usually too preoccupied to ruminate for too long about their feelings for one another. I’m still not sure I bought their initial intense attraction to each other, as it happened quite quickly in the story timeline, but once it was established it paced itself well and the relationship had its ups and downs that added another satisfying layer to the story. And I was happy to see that the tasteful sex scene that does occur between the two isn’t the “reward” at the end of the book, as many romance books have a tendency to do. Their romantic evening was one made with intention that both women risked many things to see happen and then the rest of the book is dealing with the consequence of that decision.
I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this book. Burke has done such a wonderful job crafting the arcs of this story that I dare not get into specifics for fear of utterly spoiling things. This book was a delight to read and recognize the classic fable in a historic lesfic retelling. But, as many books that I enjoy, there were a few things that didn’t quite work for me.
The first was Burke’s inclusion of unimportant details. Don’t get me wrong – Burke will take you on a journey and you will be smelling the lichen covered woods as you read through Nottingham, make no mistake. Her writing is exceptionally well crafted and her descriptions are gorgeous. But there were a few times where she would include information that I would think would be important later only to never be talked about again. One that stands out is this passage when Robyn is looking for a place to keep an eye out for her cousin:
“At the top of the hill stood a circle of ancient standing stones, green with moss and lichen, no taller than her hip. Walking through them raised the hairs on her arms. There was something about these particular stones that felt oddly sentient.”[from Chapter Seven]
The way that that is written, I was sure that magic was going to be introduced, or that Robyn would have a run in with some sort of forest witch, or perhaps fae, or something significant was going to happen at this place later in the book. I kept thinking back to this particular area whenever Robyn was traveling through the woods, waiting to read about it again and find out its importance. But it never came. This was the one that I remember the most vividly but there were other descriptions that the narrative made a point of pulling the readers attention to when they weren’t relevant to what was happening.
Perhaps my biggest dislike of the book is that the reader hears a trans person’s dead name. Now, I am not going to say who the character is that is trans because I want everyone to be as happily surprised as I was when the realization hit me – but there is some dialogue between this character and Robyn and their old name comes up. Now this character doesn’t use the word trans but does have a line where they denounce being a woman and say they’re a man and the book uses he/him pronouns and the narrative, aside from naming their dead name, is otherwise very good to that character’s representation in my opinion. I dislike the mention of their dead name because it’s never good to use a trans person’s previous name and, like my previous point, it isn’t relevant to the story and moving the plot forward. Knowing the character’s current name and their previous profession before they fled into the wood – totally fair for the reader to know as it gives a grounding sense of the characters capabilities. But their dead name doesn’t add anything to it. I’m glad that their dead name is only mentioned once (that I recall) and, like I said, the narrative is very good to the character, otherwise. It was just something I couldn’t overlook.
My only other minor criticism of Nottingham is a formatting issue that I know really comes down to a matter of personal preference (I read this on Kindle, so I can’t speak to whether or not this was the same in the print copy). Whenever there was inner dialogue—a character thinking to themselves—their thoughts weren’t italicized or otherwise made visibly clear to the reader that they were reading the thoughts of the character. It’s minor, but every time it occurred on the page it jarred me out of the scene as I had to parse out what was thought and what was prose. I’m no editor, nor am I up-to-date and what formatting style publishing houses print in but I have seen it done in other ways in published books that have been much more seamless and easier to follow. Again – this is a personal preference and some readers may not at all have a problem with it.
Overall, Nottingham is a fantastic book. It’s long (clocking in a 399 pages), it’s charming, and it takes the reader on a journey through Sherwood forest for an immensely satisfying queer story. It’s a book I’d love to read again now that I know all the surprises and it’s a book that I’ll be recommending to people for a long while. I’m still amazed that Nottingham has been on my Kindle since it was published in January, 2020 and that I didn’t read it sooner despite having pre-ordered it. And, as I mentioned at the top of the review, I’m a sucker for re-imagined fairy tale stories with a queer twist and Anna Burke has written a Beauty and the Beast retelling, too, titled Thorn. Needless to say – I know that I’m reading next because Beauty and the Beast is my all-time favorite fairy tale and Burke demonstrated with Nottingham that her writing style is one that I immensely enjoy and I look forward to reading through her entire catalogue.
4 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Reader: Anyone who is looking to tuck into a longer book that challenges what medieval women are capable of. Honestly, the fact that it is queer is just a side bonus.