What a Scoundrel Wants, by Carrie Lofty

6 Dec

What a Scoundrel Wants, by Carrie Lofty.

Unusual Historicals, a subgenre of historical romance tackling seldom explored settings or historical periods, are Ms Lofty’s passion, and she delivers a great example of what can be done with them in her print debut, What a Scoundrel Wants. Set in the England of Robin Hood and Richard Lionheart, it tells the story of Will Scarlett and Meg of Keyworth.

Right off the bat, we are faced with unusual choices for our main characters. Will Scarlett has been a truant, a ne’er-do-well, a troubadour, an outlaw, a traitor. So far, he has never been a hero. And a female alchemist who is also blind—in the late twelfth century? Talk about daring choices!

The good news is that Ms Lofty definitely pulls this off. Here’s the (much hated and misleading) back cover blurb:

A Passionate Love…
A swordsman for the Sheriff of Nottingham, Will Scarlet has finally emerged from his famous uncle’s shadow. But when he’s unwittingly drawn into a bloody battle between the Sheriff and a nobleman, it’s impossible to tell friend from foe. A woman’s screams lead Will straight into the carnage to save her—but the ravishing young lady is not the helpless maid she appears to be.

An Amorous Lady…
Meg of Keyworth lost her sight to illness years ago, but that hasn’t stopped her mission to save her imprisoned sister, who’s been arrested by none other than Will Scarlet. Meg wants to hate Will for betraying her family, but he sparks heated desire in her heart—a desire that only he can satisfy. Meg is lovely and loving, and bedding her is sensual bliss. To please her in every way is what he wants most, for Will knows he will cherish her heart forever.

Let me say that at first I had trouble getting into the story. From the get go, I disliked both characters, Meg more than Will, and that made it very difficult for me to enjoy the book as a whole. After a while, I just dropped it and gave it a rest. Which was all to the good, because once I approached the book without all my preconceived notions and build-up expectations, it turned out to be a very enjoyable read with great writing.

See, contrary to what I expected, both Meg and Will are introduced as bitter, selfish, very much less-than-heroic characters, which made it difficult for me to sympathize with their circumstances and root for them. I wanted them to be likable; I wanted to root for them unreservedly, to cheer them on from the word go—instead of letting the author show me who they really are and who they grow to be. I confess, my first reaction to Meg and Will was extremely shallow. I let myself be fooled by the superficial mask they present at the beginning of the story, building up a dislike for both that wasn’t warranted.

Lesson learned: don’t allow myself to build preconceived images of the characters simply because one of them is based on a well-loved secondary character from a legend.

With that out of the way, let’s discuss the novel as it was written.

The story starts with Will estranged from Robin, who is in France fighting with the king, and fighting man for the new sheriff of Nottingham. However, as with the previous holder of that title during the king’s absence, things are not as they seem, and corruption runs rampant over the land. Meg, on the other hand, is traveling with her overlord to rescue her sister Ada from the clutches of the sheriff.

From their first encounter to well into the last fourth of the novel, there is barely time to breathe. When they do not fight each other, lie to each other and look for ways to cause bodily harm to each other, they are busy trying to stay alive, to escape yet another ambush, yet another apparently hopeless situation. Through this all, the circumstances force them both to face that there is something more between them than animosity, resentment or guilt. Both Will and Meg must grow, leave preconceived notions of themselves and of their reality behind, accept radical changes in their lives, their aims and their futures.

I particularly enjoyed that their feelings for each other, while being the main stimulus for their personal growth, do not follow the tired pattern of magical sexual congress curing all the ills of a disagreeable personality, nor is it used as an excuse for idiocy on either of their parts. What sex there is in the story, it moves both plot and characterization forward.

With all of the plot’s twists and turns, all the battles, the narrow escapes, and the various characters weaving in and out of Will’s and Meg’s paths, it’s surprising to count and realize that barely more than a week passes between that fateful encounter in the road through Charnwood forest and their arrival at Loxley Manor.

Something else I enjoyed thoroughly is the fact that Ms Lofty crafted her secondary characters with as much care as her main—from Robin and Marian to Hugo, Jacob, Ada, each one of them are people with complex motivations, feelings, and relationships. My only complaint would be about Dryden, whose characterization in comparison remains weak—though perhaps that was necessary for the plot.

In that vein, I loved how the plot, which is in reality simple, seemed to twist itself around and inside-out and sideways…except for one teensie tiny detail: how a villain’s identity comes to light. Given all the smoke and mirrors to that point, it seemed just a tad too pat.

Or perhaps what irked me is how everyone else seemed to accept it as absolutely obvious and clear, which moves me to ask: if it was so obvious, how come it didn’t occur to anyone before this? Which shows you how I love to nitpick.

Before giving the novel a grade, though, I have to say that I was completely taken with how Ms Lofty used a couple of short exchanges between Robin and Will in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for her Will’s backstory. It warmed the cockles of my Christian Slater infatuated heart.

What a Scoundrel Wants gets an 8.5 out of 10.

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