The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne by Jonathan Stroud

The Blurb On The Back:

WANTED: SCARLETT AND BROWNE

Scarlett McCain is a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of outlaw.  She survives on bank heists, her wits – and never looking back.

That is until she meets Albert Browne, a boy with a dark past and an even darker talent.  Thrown together in a lawless future Britain, populated by strange and savage beasts, the two must escape across the wilderness – with deadly enemies close behind. 

You can buy THE OUTLAWS SCARLETT & BROWNE by Jonathan Stroud from Amazon USA, Amazon UKWaterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s over 100 years in the future.

Cataclysmic events have destroyed the United Kingdom, which now consists of seven kingdoms: Scotland, Northumbria, Wales, Mercia, Anglia, Cornwall and Wessex.  London now exists as a large lagoon and most people live in walled towns called Surviving Towns, each of which has its own set of ruling families and strict rules and a Faith House that’s run by the High Council and seeks to ensure any sign of deviancy (whether physical or moral) is clamped down on.  Outside the Surviving Towns are the wilds where huge and fearsome animals live and hunt together with the Tainted, an altogether more human threat …

Scarlett McCain wanders from Surviving Town to Surviving Town, making a living by robbing banks, never getting involved with people and never looking back.  That all changes, however, when she stumbles on the scene of a bus crash while making a getaway from her latest robbery.  The only survivor is Albert Browne, a hopeless boy, far too interested in the beauty of the wilds to be alert to the danger around them.  With the militia after Scarlett for her criminal exploits, she realises that Albert can provide her with some cover and so agrees to take him to the next town where he can catch a bus towards London.  But just as Scarlett is hiding her criminal activities from Albert, it soon becomes clear that Albert has secrets of his own and his are far more dangerous …

Jonathan Stroud’s YA post-apocalyptic fantasy thriller (the first in a new series) sets up solid character and world-building against an otherwise straightforward chase plot with enough action and brutal death to hold my attention despite the twists being a little obvious and the antagonists a little two dimensional.  That said the unresolved mysteries and hints at a wider arc mean that I will definitely read the sequel.

The introduction to this book is great with Stroud getting right into the action as Scarlett McCain wakes up surrounded by dead bodies.  She is far and away the stand out character in this book for me – ruthless, organised, clever and calculating but with some empathy for others and hints at a tragic past that will no doubt be explored in the future books.  The way she carries out a bank robbery is a lot of fun and Stroud does a good job of keeping her on the wrong side of what you’d consider the law while also making sure the reader is on her side.  I liked her smart mouth and her believable reactions and also her spiritual side as she keeps a cuss box around her neck and tries to meditate every day on a special prayer mat.  I give kudos to Stroud for how he incorporates religion into the book, with the people of this world taking a bit of a mix and match approach to their belief systems and showing how it can help people to achieve inner calm, comfort them and offer clarity of thought but also acknowledging how it can be used for control and conformity.

By contrast I thought that Albert Browne wasn’t quite as cohesive a character.  I liked his naivety and enthusiasm for the world around him – the scenes where he takes joy in the natural world are well done and makes it easy to empathise with him.  At the same time though, he is keeping dark secrets and uses that naivety and haplessness to deflect Scarlett from finding out the truth.  It’s a difficult balancing act and hand on heart I can’t say that I was quite convinced by it, partly because of a revelation made by the antagonist towards the end of the book, which suggests that Albert has more control and planning than the reader has previously been led to believe and runs counter to the idea that he is scared of what he can do.  However, this is the first book in the series and there’s plenty of scope to develop it further so while I wasn’t convinced here I am still invested enough in him to want to find out what happens next.

Plot wise, this book is basically a straightforward chase.  Albert wants to find the Free Isles out in the London lagoon where he’s been led to believe he can live in freedom and Scarlett agrees to accompany him part of the way.  But Albert has escaped from the Stonemoor facility and his jailers – notably Doctor Calloway, the cold, calculating woman who runs experiments on his abilities and who doesn’t hesitate to punish him when he fails – and they will do whatever it takes to recover him.  The pacing is very good – as you’d expect from a Stroud novel – and there’s plenty of action mixed with flashbacks and backstory to hold the attention.

Unfortunately the antagonists here are underdeveloped.  Doctor Calloway has a lot of promise through the glimpses you get in Albert’s flashbacks but it doesn’t really go anywhere beyond Albert being terrified of her and a twist we learn at the end was easy to guess.  Similarly her sidekick Shilling has a lot of potential when he’s introduced half way through but there’s no additional development there and you never really learn what motivates him.

Also excellent is the world-building.  This is a very well thought through post-apocalyptic world with Stroud doing a good job at constructing the rules of the Surviving Towns and later the Free Isles while also establishing the changes to the UK’s geography and wildlife.  The Tainted are particularly chilling and there’s clearly something about them that’s relevant to Scarlett’s past, which I look forward to finding out more about in later books. I was also interested in the idea of deviancy and impurity and how that ties in with Stonemoor’s work and what is really going on with the Faith Houses, particularly as again there are hints here of something in Scarlett’s history that I look forward to having developed.

Criticisms aside, I did enjoy this book.  Stroud is one of the standout writers in children’s and YA fiction working at the moment and there’s clearly a lot of thought and vision going into this series that I think will be really satisfying to read.  As such, I eagerly wait the sequel.  

THE OUTLAWS SCARLETT & BROWNE was released in the United Kingdom on 1st April 2021.   Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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