Dauntless is a late-middle-grade / early-YA novel that takes elements from Robin Hood and medieval adventure stories and pairs them with a strong female lead akin to the Katniss or Pris characters of recent YA novels. The story follows the struggles of Merry Ellison, a young girl who's been hiding in the forests ever since John had her father and his household killed along with other supporters from his village. Merry escaped with the other orphaned children from the village. She's shunned her noble name "Lady Ellison" to live off the land and protect the children in ways reminiscent of the Robin Hood story.
Merry and the children have attracted some attention and been dubbed the "Ghosts of Farthingale Forest" but when they accidentally hijack a treasure chest filled with the king's gold they decide to relocate and find themselves suddenly receiving unwanted attention. Coincidentally, the nearest village to their new home is also the home to Lady Merry's once betrothed, a young man named Timothy Grey. Timothy is currently in the service of the local earl and has been tasked with hunting down the supposed Ghosts.
The novel was detail oriented and moved at a steady pace, albeit slower than the thrill-a-minute action of other recent YA books. Not surprisingly, we find our heroine caught in a romantic tangle of emotions as she tries to unravel her feelings towards Timothy, the man she once loved and the man currently tasked with bringing her to justice.
The writing is crisp and clean, filled with great nuances of history and vivid descriptions of the world of medieval England. While the slower pace of the story was sometimes predictable, I found the style and tone refreshing. The story and characters were thoughtful and methodical which made them feel a bit more real. When they were impulsive, their reactions were in line with their emotions and motivations. The romantic element felt a bit forced at times but generally felt believable.
In addition to the action-adventure and romantic plotlines, the book also explores religious motifs. Since the slaughter of her father and her village, Merry has essentially sworn off religion. Other members of her band remain devout with one of the older boys frequently trying to encourage her to re-associate herself with God. One of the children in the group has a sort of 6th sense and sees "sunshine men" that help and protect the group. The religion isn't terribly overt but it is clear that the book intends for the reader to get caught up in the religious turmoil in Merry's mind. This may be off-putting to some readers in this age, but it could also be a refreshing and non-confrontational way of getting people to think about their relation to God and explore their own thoughts on religion.
The novel is self-contained and ends with most loose ends tied up. And yet it is apparently part of a series but I'm not sure if it intends to use the same characters or present different stories with different characters who are similarly put to the moral and emotional tests.
The story was generally enjoyable and I found myself drawn into the lush historical settings, but overall I wasn't deeply engaged in the plot or terribly invested in the characters. While their introspection and contemplation made them feel more real, the movement and interaction fell a little flat for me. The book was a worthwhile read and was refreshingly wholesome in a world of questionable books. And yet, I don't feel compelled to search for the sequel. Admittedly as a middle aged man, I am definitely NOT the target audience. To younger readers, this could be a fun read. I just worry that its slower pace and methodical plot may not be enough to draw in the action-hungry readers of today.
3 out of 5 stars
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