Trystam Kith: Trouble in the Forest: A Cold Summer Night

Reprinted from Green Man Review.

Roger Ebert once led off a review (I can’t recall which movie) with the observation that one sure way for a storyteller to involve the audience is to present a scenario where the hero is right but everyone else is wrong, and then follow the hero’s efforts as he tries to convince everyone that he’s right before everything falls apart. That’s the kind of story that unfolds in Trouble in the Forest: A Cold Summer Night.

Our hero, in this case, is a former Crusader named Hugh deSteny, who has now returned home to England and assumed his duties as Sheriff over a part of the realm that includes a very large and dark forest, wherein something very dark indeed has taken root. Traveling bands of merchants fail to reach their destinations along the forest roads, settlements of crofters are set upon by horrors, and even members of the Church — men of the cloth — are not safe from the evil within the wood. DeSteny has some experience in his past with the type of evil that lurks in the heart of the nearby wood, but the knowledge avails him little, because his Lord will not take the threat seriously, to the point of sending deSteny through the wood on an errand to provide escort for his Lord’s bride, a woman named Marian.

(At this point, I have to warn that I have to reveal slightly more about the plot than I wanted to in this review, but I can’t think of how to review the book without doing so.)

In the course of reading the first pages of Trouble in the Forest: A Cold Summer Night, I enjoyed the conceit of a Sheriff investigating an evil in a dark wood, and the book unfolded at first like a blend of a finely researched historical novel (think Sharon Kay Penman) and a horror book (think Stephen King). But as Trystam Kith slowly unfolds his story, dropping names here and there, I realized that Kith was doing something else. He was turning one of the best-known tales of English literature on its head.

Hugh deSteny isn’t just any Sheriff, but the Sheriff of Nottingham. His Lord is Sir Gui deGisbourne. The dark forest with the evil lurking in its core is Sherwood Forest. And the lurking evil is a band of horrible creatures: vampires all of them, with names like Much (son of a miller), Will Scarlet, Little John, and Robin Hood.

That’s right. This isn’t just a retelling of the Robin Hood legend from the standpoint of the traditional villains; this is a retelling of the Robin Hood legend in which Hood and company aren’t just bad guys, but murderous vampires. Take that, Errol Flynn! (Even the much-derided Prince John, almost universally acknowledged to be a disaster of a Prince and King, comes in for sympathetic treatment here.)

I was loath to mention the Hood angle in this review because the back cover blurb on my review copy made no mention at all of it, and therefore I had the pleasure of discovery in realizing just what Kith was up to as I recognized the tropes of the Hood tale, but inverted. But it’s not as though I am revealing the key secret of the story; this part of Kith’s game is up by page 100 of the book.

Trouble in the Forest: A Cold Summer Night is very dark and atmospheric, and it is at its best when depicting the harrowing nature of a journey through Sherwood with vampires about. Kith is very good at evoking the sense of dread that a story like this requires, and he uses one other trope of such stories to great effect: that of tracking a secondary character’s progress, with this secondary character happening to be the custodian of information that the hero, Hugh deSteny, greatly needs if he is to succeed in fighting this evil.

Since A Cold Summer Night happens to be the first book in a duology, resolution is not forthcoming here, which leads to a problem with pacing. Large parts of the book are devoted to Robin Hood’s efforts to swell the ranks of his followers, but since we know that there’s really only one way to get someone to willingly follow a vampire ( i.e, to make them into vampires themselves) these parts of the book settle into patterns where one character tries to elude them, only to succumb to being attacked at the end, often breaking away as their necks are pierced by teeth. It all becomes a bit routine, especially when one keeps expecting someone to be successful at escaping the vampires — but somehow they never are. It’s hard to evaluate what is basically half a book, but more than once I found myself wondering, “Do we really need to witness all of these events going on?”

For an interesting take on an old tale, told with excellent attention to detail and atmosphere, Trouble in the Forest: A Cold Summer Night is a good read. If its pacing had been a bit more brisk, it might have been a great one.

(Five Star Books, 2004)

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