Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Thomas the Rhymer

Ellen Kushner
Completed 11/7/2021, Reviewed 11/8/2021
4 stars

This book is about the Elves and the realm of the Faerie.  It is based on an ancient legend of a minstrel who is taken by the Elf Queen and returned seven years later with the gift of only telling the truth.  The book is one of the most detailed accounts of going into Faerie that I’ve ever read.  It’s extrapolated from the little that remains of the legend into a surprisingly personal story.  It’s beautifully written, full of excitement and despair.  It won both the Mythopoeic and the World Fantasy Awards in 1991.

Thomas is a minstrel who shows up on the doorstep of Gavin and Meg.  Offering him the traditional hospitality of the time, the three become good friends.  Thomas comes and goes, performing his talents across the region.  In the meantime, he falls in love with Elspeth, though he does not seduce and use her like he does other women.  One day, he seduced by the Queen of Elfland and whisked away as her companion for seven years.  When he comes back, he can only tell the truth as he tries to re-establish his relationships with Meg, Gavin, and mostly Elspeth.  

With only four main human characters, the characterization is simply marvelous.  There are four chapters, one told from each of their perspectives.  So we get very three dimensional characters with whom we can empathize with.  The longest and most detailed chapter is that told by Thomas when he is in Elfland.  There, he is commanded by the Queen to only speak to her unless he is performing a song.  He longs for home, but is under the glamour of the Queen and thus deeply obsessed with her.  His time in Elfland is not without its hazards as he is much taunted and abused by her brother, only known as Hunter.  In addition, he finds a bird that cries blood tears and seems to be another human, or at least the spirit of one.  Without the ability to communicate, he tries to find a way to release the spirit to save it from the Hunter.

The elves are also well-developed, especially the Queen, as you might expect.  But one entity who steals the show is the invisible servant assigned to Thomas.  I really liked how the servant took care of Thomas and tried to protect him from Hunter.  It’s the one bit of compassion that Thomas gets while in Elfland.  It also adds a bit of humor to the story.

It took me a while to get into the story.  We spend a lot of time getting to know Thomas and the others before getting to Elfland.  And even during his time in Elfland, the pacing occasionally lost some traction.  But overall it’s a very entertaining tale.  The prose is wonderful without being overbearing.  I give this book four stars out of five.  This book was much better than Kushner’s Swordspoint, which I didn’t care for at all.  With the magic and the songs and the elves, it was just, well, a magical read.

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