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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde by Anna Elliott

Title: Twilight of Avalon: A Novel of Trystan and Isolde, Book One in the Twilight of Avalon Trilogy
Author: Anna Elliott
Reviewed Format: UK Trade
Release Date: October 15, 2009
Pages: 448

The wonderful thing about Arthurian legends is they’re all so different. Some versions want to approach characters, that are by now well familiar to many of us, from a historical perspective, as if they really existed. The creative license to execute such a fiction is left to assembling their dialogue, their mannerisms and behaviors--the idea that Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, and Morgan le Fay need only the imaginative coaxing of an Author’s talent to be released once again into a world they inhabited long ago. Other versions take great advantage of the legend as a fairy tale, something that at one point may have been based in reality, but has now risen above the mundane and into the powerfully magical and fantastical.

I enjoy reading both types of Arthurian legends. Each side has something to offer, something new to share, some other perspective to explore, or some new twist to alter the way we may have thought about the turn of events or the roles we’ve come to expect of the characters. Anna Elliott’s Twilight of Avalon, the first in a new Twilight of Avalon Trilogy, is a book that takes its cue from the historical, and one might say cynical, perspective. Like every other author, Elliott shows us a new way to spell everyone’s names (although Arthur’s is woefully always the same): Mordred is Modred; Guinevere is Gwenyfar; Merlin, like most versions, is a title, the real name being Myrddin. This, though, is a novel about Trystan and Isolde. As we are reminded several times in the narrative, “Camlann was over. Arthur and Modred, Myrddin and Morgan and Gwynefar lingering now only as voices in the wind. One age is ended...And another, perhaps, begun.” (p. 425)

Camlann, mind you, isn’t referring to Camelot (albeit here is Camelerd). It’s the rumored historical site of the battle between Arthur and Mordred--Arthur’s final resting place. When the narrative begins, it’s been seven years since Arthur and Camelerd’s demise. Isolde, daughter of Gwynefar and Modred--Arthur’s son with his half sister Morgan--is mourning the sudden death of her husband, and Arthur’s heir after Modred, Constantine. Britain is without a leader and in danger of being overrun by Saxons eager to take over the countryside. Stuck in the middle is Isolde and Camelerd, all that she has left of her family. War is ongoing and now, thrown into the bid for power is Isolde and her land. As the smaller kings fight amongst themselves to win the High Kingship, Isolde is fearful of the man who may win the battle. Even worse than Marche’s temperment and penchant for torture, is the easy way he has with his soldiers. Marche’s ability to persuade and to lead are dangerous when combined with his ambition: Camelerd is not safe, nor does he have its best interests at heart.

Twilight of Avalon is a dark, brooding novel. The magic that’s come to be understood as an integral part of Arthurian legend is instead the stuff of stories. As Coel relates to Isolde, “There are plenty of tales about Arthur these days. But I doubt any of us who knew the man himself would find much to recognize in the stories you hear told and retold.” (p. 138) Magic and witchcraft and very feared things and the people of Britain are nothing if not terribly superstitious here. There are frequent references from the characters themselves to the tall tales already being told of people they once knew, of what they would delight in having said of them when they are gone.

The land has changed and so has Isolde. She has lost her Sight, her ability to see into the past and future at will--oddly enough, this is the only magic that’s even remotely referred to as real. Instead her visions come to her sporadically and function narratively to fill in the gaps of a willed amnesia that has blocked out a good portion of Isolde’s painful past. Elliott’s writing is enchanting and lyrical, the kind that slows a reader down to absorb the pages in at length and gorge on the richness and beauty of the narrative. Nothing particularly happens, except one or two things, over and over again: Isolde runs free and is captured, twice; Isolde is held on trial for witchcraft, twice; Trystan is beaten, many times.

I felt pretty bad for Trystan. He was never without bruises, lash wounds, or blood. Isolde was constantly referred to as the “Witch Queen” and made to suffer under the obstinate ignorance of the men around her who used her as a scapegoat for many deaths, and accusations of witchcraft over what they could not do or did not understand. Like always, Isolde’s “witchcraft” is presented as a very feminine thing woven tightly together with healing. For all intents and purposes to the men of Constantine’s remaining army, the two are inseparable; Isolde’s bedside ministrations are a highly suspicious thing to behold under the utmost scrutiny and wariness. These characters clearly had their assigned roles and little would be done to tear them free, until the end of the novel that is. In less than the course of a week, so much despair and frustration made Isolde’s mission appear hopeless. Combined with her inability to cope with the tumult of misfortune she’s experienced in a short period of time, save for pushing it all to the back of her mind, there’s something depressingly urgent fueling the momentum of the story. We want to see Isolde succeed, if only to allow her time to breathe, time to mourn.

While she isn’t a terribly dynamic character, I have to remind myself this is the first in a trilogy. Isolde has to go through her trials here in order to--hopefully--grow in the next book. She heals others and tells stories now to push back the time when she has to remember to heal from her own stories. She’s a wounded animal. I think with the novel being as dark and despairing as it is, there’s still a beauty found in Isolde and the other character’s efforts to continue fighting for a cause greater than themselves as everything dies off around them. In their perseverance is found something of the grandness of Arthur’s court. There is hope.

I do want to say one last thing, before anyone walks away wanting to pick this up. The jacket copy refers to this book in passing as something of a romance novel. Let me clear this up for you: it’s nowhere near a romance novel. If there is romance, it waits on the other side, in the pages of the second or third book, but not here.

Overall, I really, really enjoyed this novel. Plus, the cover is a gorgeous John William Waterhouse painting (Boreas; he also did the infamous Lady of Shalott painting). Who doesn’t love John William Waterhouse? His artwork is so hauntingly beautiful and this one in particular fits the novel well. But of the book, I think Anna Elliot has a talent suited well for this type of historical-mythological novel and I can’t wait for The Dark Moon of Avalon and Sunrise of Avalon to be released. Arthur, Mordred, Morgan, and Merlin are all larger than life figures that loom out of their place in history to affect even the characters they once walked alongside, lingering like ghosts. While Elliott did approach Twilight of Avalon from a historical perspective, she also pays tribute to the fairy tale. For that, I think, she did a wonderful job! My thanks go out to Ally Glynn at Simon & Schuster UK for generously providing me with this review copy.

Now for an extra bit of fun: I've got an extra copy of this book, the US Trade edition, which is the same as the UK edition except for a dollar instead of a pound symbol, and it's up for grabs! Half of the hard work on your part is done: you've actually read this far into the review.

Simply leave a comment on the LiveJournal entry of this review (non LJ people: use openID, NO anonymous comments will be allowed) with your e-mail address telling me which is your favorite Arthurian Legend (Monmouth, White, Zimmer Bradley, Malory, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cornwell, Lawhead, something I probably haven't listed here). Unfortunately, I have to limit this to US residents only due to shipping costs.

You get an extra entry if you become, or are, a follower of Jawas Read, Too!, my book review blog. Let me know who you are (in the same comment as the other info, please) so I can compare you to the people that have (if they do) become followers.

The contest will run for a week, until next Sunday at midnight PST. Winners will be picked randomly. Multiple entries will result in your complete removal from the contest.

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

I commented over at LJ, but I may as well comment here, too.

I may search this one out in the future, because it does sound intriguing! And the cover is amazing. :)

Erika said...

It's a gorgeous cover! I love John William Waterhouse. I say you should enter anyway, but I've got a huge pile too and totally understand not wanting to add to it. :)

Lily Child said...

Wow. This book sounds stunning. I have always wanted to read The Mists of Avalon by Mary Zimmer Bradley. Have you read it? I saw a movie loosely based on it once. I just love the Arthurian legends. Do the name changes make it tricky to follow?

Erika said...

I have read it, yes! It was quite good and this book reminded me of it a lot. If you haven't read that one, you should... And you should also read this one! It's dark and gloomy, and not a *whole* lot happens, but it does nicely to set up the next two books I think. And the end is hopeful. :)

No, the name changes aren't tricky at all! It's just something I noticed always happens. I always get more confused after I'm done reading the book, when I want to refer to characters outside of the context of any novel--which way do I spell their names?! ;)

Anna Elliott said...

Thanks so much for the lovely review! And you're absolutely right, the romance does enter into the plot in books 2 and 3. The name variations in Arthurian legend are quite interesting--as you say, there are many of them. I used the early Welsh versions of the names since I was basing my story on the earliest Welsh versions of the legends.

Thanks again!

Erika said...

Thank you so much for stopping by, Anna! The name variations are fascinating, especially in light of the history you brought to the legend.

I'm so excited I pinned the romance! The beginnings are there, surely, but poor Isolde was so scarred! I'd have been surprised if the romance started in this book--she had much too much to work through for that to happen in the natural course of events.

You are more than welcome. It makes the book all the more enjoyable to know you took the effort to come over and see what I thought of it. A lovely book is so much easier to review; yours was absolutely beautiful. I've already marked the date for the release of The Dark Moon of Avalon!

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