Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book Review: Thomas the Rhymer

Ellen Kushner has written fantasy novels, poetry, short stories, and plays, and has done some solo spoken word projects. Thomas the Rhymer (1990) was Kushner's second novel and won the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award. (From Kushner's webpage here). (Cover image found here.)

Since it has been a few weeks since I finished this, and am just now getting around to reviewing it I at first that it would only be a "mini" review, but have found I have a lot to say about it! Perhaps stewing over it has helped? This is also sort of related to this week's Weekly Geeks topic!

I checked this out from my university library (well, actually I had it ordered from another library since mine did not carry it but those are just details!) and put off starting it for about a week. When I did eventually pick it up, it took me the first few chapters to really get involved in the story but by the end of the novel I wasn't ready to give up on the characters.

Title: Thomas the Rhymer
Author: Ellen Kushner
Themes: friendship, love, music, magic, fairies, quests
Plot: A minstrel lives by his words, his tunes, and sometimes by his lies. But when the bold and gifted young Thomas the Rhymer awakens the desire of the powerful Queen of Elfland, he finds that words are not enough to keep him from his fate. .As the Queen sweeps him far from the people he has known and loved into her realm of magic, opulence-and captivity-he learns at last what it is to be truly human. When he returns to his home with the Queen's parting gift, his great task will be to seek out the girl he loved and wronged, and offer her at last the tongue that cannot lie.

My Thoughts: First of all, I feel that the book's official plot overstates Thomas' "task" to "seek out the girl he loved and wronged..." When reading Thomas the Rhymer romance seems to come second to his new dedication to, and the role of, "the tongue that cannot lie." With that in mind, I would classify this book more of an adventure/fantasy than a romance, which seems to be a selling point in official plot descriptions. That aside, Kushner has taken the traditional ballad/tale of the captured minstrel of great beauty and skill (with the harp, singing, and the ladies) and turned it into living, breathing characters and a very real (vaguely medieval) Europe (I assume Scotland, since that is supposed to be where the ballad comes from?). While I had a hard time believing Thomas' change of heart, I felt that he was basically within his "character" throughout the novel, and instead found some of the supporting characters to be a bit flat.
The novel goes through four narrators, each with a slightly different voice, although I have to admit that Gavin's voice was my favorite because it seemed to be the most unique, and defined his character clearly.
I also found that there was some ambiguity around the Queen of Elfland's challenge that was never cleared up, and it certainly bothered me while I was reading Thomas. Perhaps I had not read carefully enough, but the challenge in which Thomas was a part, did not make sense to me. With that said, I enjoyed this book immensely and bored my family to death updating them on the plot as I continued through the chapters. Of course, I love fairy tales and any sort of retelling, so I was bound to love Kushner's Thomas despite the fact that I couldn't really relate to the characters. The story was well told, and Kushner brought all the people and places to life on the page.

Random Passage: "Since the story wouldn't leave me, I decided to play with it. It might make at least the first half of a ballad, with its sorry tale of jealousy and murder. And there were images that touched me: the young wife burying her dead husband and child alone at night; her weary walk to the king's door...Harp in hand, I began to pluck at the words and the tune (p. 129)."

Recommendation: I would recommend this novel if you like any of the following: Fantasy stories, Elfland stories, fairy-tale/ballad retellings. I don't want to say that everyone should read this book, but I think a great many people would enjoy it!

Similar Reads: Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean*

Kusher, Ellen. Thomas the Rhymer. New York: Bantam Books, 2004.

* I haven't actually read Tam Lin, although I own a copy, but the story-lines have obvious similarities!

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