I was really looking forward to reading Deb Stover's Stolen Wishes. Over the past couple of years I've heard lots of good things about Stover's books, so I began reading her latest novel with high hopes. Unfortunately, the story never really grabbed my attention.
Stolen Hearts uses the legend of Robin Hood as a framework for the story, although the novel is set in Oklahoma during the late 19th century. Mary Goode is the "Maid Marian" of the story. She lives with her mentally challenged older brother, Robin Goode (get it?), whom she rescued years ago from an asylum after her parents died . Also living with them in "Sherwood Forest" are two misfits from society, Little John, a hearing-impaired giant of an Indian, and Friar Tuck, a bald, brilliant midget who acts as a father figure to Mary and Robin.
Unbeknownst to Mary, her brother and two companions have been drawing the attention of a U.S. Marshal named Shane Latimer. The Merry Men have been thieving from the rich and giving their stolen bounty to the poor. When Shane stumbles upon the lair in Sherwood Forest, he's determined to bring these thugs to justice -- including the innocent-acting "Maid Marian."
But the first of a long series of mishaps fells Shane, and he finds himself recuperating from a rattlesnake bite and head injury under the watchful eye of Mary, a woman he finds himself strongly attracted to. He doesn't want Mary or the Merry Men to find out who he really is, so he pretends to have a case of amnesia until he can figure out how to handle this bizarre group of thugs. Thus, he's nicknamed "Will Scarlet" and temporarily adopted into the family.
There are other plots in the story, one of which involves Mary and a real thug named Angel Rodriguez, a brutal man who attacked and raped Mary in the past. Mary suffers from post-traumatic distress when she first meets Shane, but then slowly learns to separate the act of violence committed by Rodriguez from the demonstrations of love and affection she receives from Shane. There's also a sub-plot involving Friar Tuck, who's not really who he seems to be throughout the story.
One of the big problems I had with this book was that the character of Shane never came alive for me. I didn't get a strong sense of who he was, what he stood for, and what he wanted. I like my heroes bigger than life, and unfortunately, Shane stayed flat on the page. On the other hand, Mary Goode's character was much more developed. Stover did an excellent job at painting a picture of Mary's torment and eventual psychological release.
The other problem I had was with the story's pacing. At times the book dragged. Then a few pages later, a whole series of events would come pounding at me, one after the other. An example is when Mary and Shane attempt to make love for the first time. Beyond the lovemaking, there are violent thunderstorms, twisters, gunfire, and lightning strikes that all happen one on top of the other within the space of ten or twelve pages. I got exhausted! It was just too much action, especially since the romantic tension in the story was about to break.
Another thing that became tiring for me was the overuse of a narrative style that is popular in romance fiction, especially when something ominous is about to happen. It's a structure that goes like this, and I quote from Stolen Wishes:
"The ground opened up and swallowed him into a yawning, groping pit.
I would assume that a yawning, groping pit would be fairly black, so the fragmented second paragraph seemed deliberate and manipulative. Because Stolen Wishes relied so heavily on this structure throughout the novel to build drama, I found myself checking out of the story.
There were things I liked about Stolen Wishes. I liked that Shane did not use euphemisms when thinking about his penis; does a man really think of his penis as a "rising manhood"? The secondary characters were colorful. And I think a fable as a story structure is a great concept. But alas, I just couldn't warm up to this particular retelling of the Robin Hood legend.