Book Review: The Black Arrow

Did you know Robert Louis Stevenson wrote more than Kidnapped, Treasure Island, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? I love his other writings, so when I saw The Black Arrow at a used-book sale, I snatched it up. It sat on my shelf for a few years, however, until I recently found myself in between books and trying to choose my next read. The Black Arrow called my name again, and down it came.

I read it in two days. And I’m so glad I did.

War is raging–and lords are changing–between the Lancasters and the Yorks in the War of the Roses when 18-year-old Richard Shelton learns from a vigilante group that the knight who raised him may be the man who murdered his father. Torn between loyalty to his friends and a duty to vengeance, Shelton begins a journey for the truth that leads him to both the most faithful companions and the most devious enemies.

In other words, Robin Hood meets King Arthur, with a dash of Shakespeare.

I loved this book for three main reasons: its plot, its details, and its main character. While the book starts with a clear hook (preparations for a nearby battle) and quickly introduces promising intrigue (an assassination claimed by a vigilante group, followed by a message hinting at the murder of Shelton’s father), the older writing style and Shakespearean dialogue made it hard for me to fully connect to the story’s events.

Within a few chapters, however, I was locked in and committed to the rest of the book, whether I liked it or not. Adrenaline-pumping escapes, inter-character (and intra-character) conflict, private and national plots that deepen with every twist—Stevenson proves himself a master storyteller by weaving multiple layers of tension throughout the story and maintaining that tension until the very end. (I’m thankful I had a quiet day and could read most of the book in one sitting—I could not tear myself away!) I got a thrilling ride with a fully satisfying ending.

Along with its gripping plot, this book won me with its rich details. I love details—as long as they don’t bog down the narrative—because they’re what brings the story to life in my imagination while keeping things credible for my realistic-skeptic side. Stevenson’s tidy descriptions of the landscapes, buildings, and people grounded me in every setting and gave my inner eye plenty of fodder to picture everything that went on.

And the historical details. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t eat up all the juicy depictions of the weapons, armor, wardrobe, religious practices, furniture, politics, and skirmish strategies of late-medieval England? (No? Just me? Okay then.) This book is as good as a history textbook for presenting everyday life—and then some—for a variety of classes in the Middle Ages. Even if I weren’t working on a medieval novel myself, I would still praise the thorough details and remarkable lifelikeness of this historical fiction.

Apart from the plot and details, all mechanics of good storytelling, what stood out to me from the story itself was the main character. Richard Shelton isn’t perfect and makes plenty of mistakes, but he learns from his experiences, and throughout the entire book—even at the end, after all he’s seen—he maintains a heart of compassion and mercy that sets him apart from the rest of the cast. He’s once called naïve for his trusting nature and open character, but there’s no guile in him whatsoever, and he genuinely, consistently seeks to do what’s right and honorable. In what he does as much as what he doesn’t do, Shelton makes a very positive role model for all readers.

My only warning for young or sensitive readers is the amount of death in the book. Lots of characters die, though few of them are named characters and none of the deaths are described in detail. In fact, it surprised me how briefly most of these deaths were mentioned and passed over. Shelton and another character argue after he kills a man who refused to shoot them, but otherwise even the main character shows little response to the deaths he causes. This matter-of-fact treatment is no doubt realistic to the times but may trouble some readers.

The only other possible hang-ups come from the writing itself. Thankfully Stevenson crafted his prose in the style of his time (late 1800s), but all the dialogue takes place in pre-Elizabethan English. Having read both Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible (and just came off The Canterbury Tales), I understood most of the expressions and grammatical differences, but unprepared readers may have a harder time.

Stevenson also uses multiple names for several characters, in the narrative as well as the dialogue: first name, last name, nickname, title, etc. For the most part I could keep everyone straight, but once or twice I had to flip back some pages or chapters to make sure I was reading about the same character.

In short, don’t let the boy in pantyhose on the cover turn you away. The Black Arrow offers a coming-of-age adventure with non-stop action, quick-witted humor, light romance, and good morals perfect for readers of G. A. Henty or Rosemary Sutcliff, or any fan of the Middle Ages. This book is my new favorite gem of lesser-known classics, and I’m proud to have it on my bookshelf.

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