As the only daughter of the renowned woodwife known as “Celandine of Celandine’s Wood” 13-year-old Rosemary spends her days working with and learning from her mother, and running freely about her forest home. It’s a simple life, but a good one, until one day Rosemary feels her mother’s spell of protection wrap around her. Immobile but completely safe, Ro is nonetheless terrified, instinctively knowing that something horrible is happening. When Ro is able to move again, she runs for home, only to find it -- and her mother -- burned to the ground.
Even in her grief, Ro knows she must look to her own survival. Her options are few and unappealing: should she remain in Celandine’s wood, it would be only a matter of time before the men who killed her mother came to rid themselves of her as well; alternatively, she could give up the freedom she’s known all her life and seek shelter with a family in the village, but even assuming she could find one brave enough to take in the daughter of a woodwife, as with all village girls the local lord would soon arrange an unwanted marriage for her.
With no more promising options available, Ro knows what she must do: find her father, a man she knows only by name and reputation. Mere hours after her mother’s death she’s hacked off her hair to disguise herself as a boy, changed her name to Rowan, and set off for the distant Sherwood Forest with plans to join the band of outlaws led by the legendary Robin Hood.
Though Rowan Hood begins as grimly as any children’s book I have yet experienced, this first novel in Nancy Springer’s series for 9 to 12-year-olds is a true pleasure to read. Rich with tender emotion, peopled with unique characters, and blessed with healthy doses of magic, mystery, and adventure, it's a story that will thrill most young girls.
Unfortunately, all enjoyment seems to end with the first installment. As with too many series that begin so well, the second book just doesn’t hold up to our expectations. There are a few problems with Lionclaw that simply cannot be overlooked.
Lionclaw isn’t really about Rowan. Now that our engaging heroine has found her father and some measure of peace, it seems she’s to be largely abandoned in favor of Lionel the bard, who has enough problems to discourage anyone. Not only is he motherless, but his father has placed a price on his head. Thanks to Lionel, Rowan, Robin, and everyone else he cares about are in grave danger. Lionel is an interesting character, but he’s also whining, dishonest and cowardly, and therefore difficult to find sympathy for.
Along with her main character, the author seems to have abandoned her audience. Where Rowan Hood is distinctly a book that caters to girls, Lionclaw is not. Those enamored with Rowan, and with her growing relationship with the ever fascinating Robin Hood, will be sorely disappointed to find the father-daughter tenderness so prevalent in the first novel almost completely absent from this one.
Finally, though Springer has a clear talent for writing heart-pounding scenes of action and suspense, she takes it a bit too far in Lionclaw. In contrast with Rowan Hood, which begins sadly but rewards the reader for getting through those first heart-rending scenes, Lionclaw is grim from the first page to the last, with little relief -- comic or otherwise -- at any point during the story.
I heartily recommend Rowan Hood to any girl who likes a good adventure with a touch of fantasy. Sadly, I cannot recommend Lionclaw to anyone.
Fantastic Fiction has a bibliography for Nancy Springer.