Wednesday, September 29, 2010

She Stoops to Conquer: Hawksmaid by Kathryn Lasky

"This is not girls' work, Matty," Fynn said.

Fury flared within her. "It's outlaw's work is what it is.... A thief can be a man, a woman, a girl, or a boy. I found the rubies! I want you to trust me. We all need to trust one another. I think we need to make a blood oath."

Fynn drew out his hunting knife. Each one slashed the tips of their thumbs. They went around and pressed their thumbs to one another's and repeated the words after Matty.

"I do solemnly swear upon this oath of blood never to reveal my knowledge of the rubies to any human being. The riches we have found will be used only in service to our lawful king, Richard, and to defeat the tyranny that prevails in this land but never for our personal gain. This I swear in the name of our Lord."

It is 1192 and King Richard is imprisoned, held for ransom in Austria, and Prince John's reign has brought tyranny and hunger to all save his co-conspirators in England. With her mother murdered by John's henchmen and her father impoverished and dispirited, Matty has nothing but her skill in falconry and the loyalty of her birds to feed the household. But she has friends from childhood, Fynn and his spirited companions, who through their skills in the ways of the forest manage to help feed the poor with their poached game and daring robberies, staying just ahead of Guy of Gisborne and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Then Matty spies the sheriff's sister, the Abbess, hiding jewels under the banks of a brook, and realizes that these are jewels stolen from the golden chalice in the local church. With the help of Fynn and friends she secretes them in the hollows of five dead trees in the Barndale woods, and together they swear to use them to ransom Richard and bring just rule to their land.

And thus Robin Hood, his Merry Men, and his love, Maid Marian, are born.

Disguised as a serving maid, Marian Greenleaf, Matty spies upon the household of Nottingham Castle and manages to avert the poisoning of the Bishop of Ely, their only ally against Black John. But the evil Abbess discovers her identity and manages to capture her in a deadfall snare in the forest. Held captive, Matty refuses to betray her secrets and at last finds her only recourse to be a hunger strike, knowing that the Abbess must keep her alive to locate the jewels hidden in the forest. But at last Matty lies near death, hidden amidst lepers, her location unknown except to her loyal falcon, Marigold.

In her latest, Hawksmaid: The Untold Story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian (Harper, 2010) stretches her admirable range as a writer, venturing into the hybrid genre of historical fantasy. A Newbery winner (for Sugaring Time) and the prolific author of the best-selling Guardians of Ga'Hoole and Wolves of the Beyond series and numerous historical novels and biographies, here Lasky sticks to straightforward historical fiction until near the end, where she slips a bit disjunctively (although not without artful foreshadowing) into a fantasy conclusion which brings about the delivery of the jewels to Richard the Lionhearted's mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, ransoming the young king and allowing the return of law and order to his domain.

Still, the appeal of the drama and timeless romance of Robin and his Marian make for an intriguing adventure story with a strong female character which will spellbind middle readers. Hawksmaid: The Untold Story of Robin Hood and Maid Marian will appeal to fans of the similarly fantasy-tinged historical series, Nancy Springer's Tales of Rowan Hood, as an imaginative reworking of the evergreen Robin Hood legend.

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