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Historical Fiction Book Review: The Arrow of Sherwood by Lauren Johnson

Lauren Johnson is a medieval historian and consultant for Past Pleasures (the UK’s oldest costumed interpretation company) and a storyteller who has appeared on radio and TV.  For all those reasons, I was excited to read her origin story about Robin Hood, and had high expectations for the history.  In general, I was happy with the read, but there were a few places where the I caught errors.  And I’m not a professional historian, so I can only imagine whether there were more, or it was just dumb luck.

Anyway, the story begins like all Robin Hood stories, with Robin of Locksley coming home from the crusades to find that he is believed dead, and finds his beloved home torn apart as Norman lords take over the English lands and disregard the customs and histories of the common people who have enjoyed certain rights for centuries.  In this story, though, the Sheriff has married Robin’s mother, and thankfully isn’t the same evil character we see in other stories, but has more depth and is torn between different factions.  The Viponts are a family that is in the good graces of Prince John (Richard’s brother, who tried to usurp the throne while he was away) and they are making life miserable for everyone around them, wreaking havoc on the local economy and driving the good citizens to burglary and a life of crime.

Robin uses his resources in Locksley Hall, and his friendships with the local families to care for those who have been outlawed, and devise ways to bring fairness back to Nottingham.  There are daring rescues, but what I really loved about the book was the way the characters were so fully created and developed.  There wasn’t any period where I thought, “hang on, what were they thinking here?”  Everything made sense.  It was a pleasure to get to know these people, who were so much more realistic than in other tellings of the story.

The book is well written, and kept my attention throughout.

Sadly, I got sidetracked right off the bat, just 5% in, when I read this sentence.  “Dinner lasted hours with only the briefest of afternoon pauses, then the sheriff and his lady insisted on drinking wine and taking bread before Evensong.”   Then, a few pages later, “With all the sitting and drinking forced on him it was a miracle he did not piss himself by Evensong.”

Evensong didn’t come about until the 16th century in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.  And faithful readers of this blog will remember from other posts that it combined the two evening services in the traditional Catholic hours into just one service.

So, yeah, given that we are about 400 years from any sort of Evensong service here, seeing it mentioned twice in quick succession kind of lost me.  Especially since so much of the book demonstrated her knowledge of the period – the festivals attended, the way time was kept according to the rituals of the church.  She even understood the legal system clearly.

But just that mention of Evensong – as nitpicky as it is – really lost me.  Evensong is an English liturgical institution.  It made me sad that a professional historian was so out to lunch with it.

There were a few other times where I sort of cocked my head and thought, “I wonder if that’s right?” but it wasn’t enough to take away from my enjoyment of the story, and so I just let it go.  Given that I’m publishing my own historical fiction book in a few months, I hope people will give me the same grace.