By J. Tullos Hennig
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
The Robin Hood legend sat beside King Arthur as “stories I was obsessed with as a kid but am now sick to death of thanks to all the retellings that do the same things over and over” (except Robin Hood: Men in Tights. That one’s a masterpiece. Fight me).
And then The Wode came along.
Forget all the Assassin’s Creed-esque action flicks starring Robin Hood in machine-stitched jackets. All those dozens of stories telling you that this time, for sure, they’ve taken the classic in a fresh new direction? They have nothing on this series.
Because this is how a Robin Hood retelling should be done.
The most basic version of The Wode‘s premise is this: queer historical fantasy Robin Hood with a friends to lovers to enemies to lovers plot.
And the author could have taken that and made it into a one-shot 200-300 page romance. I’ve seen it done countless times with other classic retellings. And that’s fine. That’s wonderful.
But turns out Hennig is an overachiever after my own heart. She takes a premise that sounds like a fanfiction prompt and makes a saga out of it (and at four books in, it’s still not finished). And its complexity is astounding–characters built upon layers and layers and tripping over their own demons, pagan folklore woven into a 12th-century England, prose lush with passion and poetry.
It’s a textbook demonstration on what it means to take an original tale and transform it into something that’s wholly your own.
Let’s meet the cast!
Marion – Maiden, Consort, Catalyst
We’ll start with our leading lady first because Marion plays an actual role in this story beyond trophy love interest. In this version, Marion and Robyn are siblings, and together they’re the mortal representations of the dual pagan deities, the Mother Goddess and her consort the Horned God (with the magic to match).
Marion is kind of the glue that holds our main characters together and her arc goes through the struggles of being a woman who’s not a fighter but who’s still determined to be treated with the same kind of respect given to her brother and not like damaged porcelain.
Robyn Hood (Or “Hode”) – Archer, Outlaw, Winterking
Robyn is the earthly avatar of the Horned Lord, Cernunnos. He stands against the nobility, not only because of the atrocities committed against the peasants, but because their prosperity means the fall of the pagan faith. And he’s determined to stand as the last bulwark against Christianity. Or die trying.
Robyn represents the wild and the untamed, every bit the forest king. Giving little thought to the future, he lives moment to moment, wearing his heart on his sleeves. He rides his emotions to their keenest point–diving head-first into love and passion, welcoming every pain and sorrow and letting them shape him into a weapon to strike against his enemies. He revels in that space where danger and recklessness dance arm in arm which is a source of frustration for his loved ones, but also what makes him so irresistibly magnetic.
Not gonna lie. He’s my favourite incarnation of Robin Hood to date (and I’ve met a lot of them over the years). Not just because of how well-written he is, but also because he manages to be both Robin Hood and someone completely new at the same time.
GUY DE GISBORNE/Gamelyn – Templar, Crusader, Summerlord,
One Very Confused Man
The Sheriff of Nottingham would have been the obvious counterpart for Robyn to star in an enemies-to-lovers plot. He’s Robin Hood’s prime nemesis, after all–the villain you see in every retelling.
Instead Hennig chose a man by the name of Guy de Gisborne, this random guy (heh) who appears in one Robin Hood ballad as the mercenary hired to dispatch the outlaw. In the ballad, Gisbourne finds his mark but fails the whole assassination bit and gets beheaded for all his troubles. End of story. The curtain closes.
But what if…
What if Guy and Robyn knew each other from childhood, when they both went by different names? What if they had been two boys learning to navigate the murky waters of friendship and love together?
What if Fate has decreed that their lot in life is to be rivals, Summer and Winter, doomed to destroy one other?
What if they (or Robyn, at least) said, “Fuck that”?
Guy/Gamelyn is ice to Robyn’s fire. Whereas Robyn embraces his emotions, Gamelyn bottles them up, because he’s learned during his years in the Crusade that coldness is where he works best. It’s where he can think and do his job without old pains and doubt surfacing up and muddying things.
The irony of the gods anointing Robyn as “Winterking” and Gamelyn “Summerlord” isn’t lost on any of the characters, and the interplay between the two is utterly engrossing.
“This is one thing about you I’ve never kenned.”
Guy blinked, frowned. “What?”
“How Summer can be so bloody cold.”
Paganism and Christianity – Guy/Gamelyn’s Inner Conflict
So, all the previous things I mentioned? Love them. Love them all. But this here is what really sells the series for me. See, as much of a leading character Robyn is, he’s actually not the heart of the story.
That title belongs to Guy/Gamelyn and his push-and-pull conflict of identity.
Their consort, wearing the tabard of his father’s god, but in whom the old Saxon gods of his mother pounded through his veins with undeniable talent and the sap and salt of Summer’s coming….
What I love about Gamelyn’s attraction to the Templar Order is that it has less to do with his love for Christianity and more to do with the sense of belonging it gives him. With the Templars, things are simple. The higher-ups give him orders and he can just follow them without question. No complications of destiny and magic and old gods who would yank him around like a puppet. And for someone who feels he’s had so little control over his life, that means everything. That means a peace of mind and a purpose he can actually name (which is something I can seriously relate to).
And then in waltzes Robyn with his stupid hood and his stupid eyes that see right into him–the very definition of Complication–proclaiming that Gamelyn’s place is in the Wode at the siblings’ side.
Yeah, great. Thanks.
Who am I, here? Just tell me who I am.
Templar or Summerlord? The Holy Cross or the Oak? This series is about him trying to figure out if it’s possible to exist in two (seemingly) different worlds at the same time, and the process is messy and brilliantly, endlessly fascinating.
Love, love, love — ALL kinds of love
Paternal, platonic, sexual, romantic, and blurry lines between all of them–this has everything covered.
The love between Robyn and Gamelyn is like pouring gasoline in a car and lighting it up, and then throwing in a handful of firecrackers for good measure. It’s explosive. It’s electric. It’s bad news. But at the same time, no–it’s the best news you could hope for.
Gamelyn and Marian? More like a cool running creek. Gentle and soft and peaceful.
Robyn and Little John? Same thing.
It’s all rather open and poly (but NO INCEST) and Hennig shows so well how the strength of one kind of love doesn’t diminish the strength of another.
This isn’t to say that the books are perfect. Pacing is the biggest issue I have with it; there are periodic lulls in the story where nothing really happens. And as much as I like Marion, I do wish she had more variety of things to do.
The Wode hauls itself out from the box of Recyled Robin Hood Retellings and tries to cobble together something that’s new and unique and ambitious. And for the attempt alone I would have awarded it points.
But to largely succeed in that endeavour? Well, that deserves me banging pots and pans out on the balcony screaming, “GO READ THIS.” But after that last fiasco with the water balloons and the inflatable flamingo, I don’t think my neighbours will be all that impressed.
So this is me banging pots and pans right through your screen.
Go read this.