30 June, 2009

Twilight of Avalon, by Anna Elliott. Book review

Edition reviewed: Touchstone 2009, ISBN 978-1-4165-8989-1. 426 pages.

Twilight of Avalon is subtitled “A novel of Trystan and Isolde”, and is billed as Book 1 of a trilogy. It’s set in Britain seven years after King Arthur’s death at the battle of Camlann, some time in the first half of the sixth century or thereabouts. Trystan, Isolde and King Mark (here spelled Marche) are famous characters in Arthurian legend, and other characters from the legends such as Merlin, Mordred and Arthur’s sister Morgan make appearances. The author’s note says that Madoc of Gwynedd is loosely based on the historical figure of Maelgwn Gwynedd. All the other main characters are fictional.

Isolde is the illegitimate daughter of Mordred, King Arthur’s son and nephew by incest with Morgan, and of King Arthur’s unfaithful wife Guinevere. Orphaned at the age of 13 when Mordred was killed fighting Arthur at Camlann, Isolde was married to Arthur’s heir, the boy-king Constantine and made High Queen of Britain, at least in name. Now Constantine has been killed, in battle as is thought (though Isolde knows it was murder), and Isolde’s position at court has become extremely precarious. She is widely distrusted as a witch, because of her descent from Morgan and because she has skills as a healer and a limited power of second sight. Evil King Marche of Cornwall is scheming to get the High Kingship for himself, and forces Isolde into marriage as part of a traitorous plot. With her only possible ally among the lesser kings dead in suspicious circumstances, Isolde flees from the court at Tintagel to seek evidence of Marche’s treason. She finds herself forming a reluctant alliance with a mysterious prisoner, Trystan, who has lately escaped from Marche’s dungeons, and his three rag-tag companions. Isolde must not only find a way to foil Marche’s treason, but also come to terms with her own past.

If you’re familiar with the story of Tristan and Isolde from Wagner’s opera or from the Arthurian romances, you’ll find Twilight of Avalon a very different take. Despite the “sweeping romance” promise in the cover blurb, the traditional romantic love story doesn’t make any appearance at all, though there are hints that it may be intended for Book 2 and/or 3. There’s no glamorous Camelot and no high chivalry. The setting is the darkest of Dark Ages, an unremittingly grim world of violence, chaos and betrayal. With few exceptions, the kings of Britain are violent, arrogant, deceitful, self-centred and/or a bit thick. None of them features on the list of tyrants named by Gildas in On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain*, but they are clearly cut from the same cloth. The lives of the warrior aristocracy are nasty, brutish and short; you probably don’t want to imagine how miserable this world must be for the peasantry off-stage.

There are some fantasy elements to the novel, and some features of the traditional high medieval setting are retained. Tintagel is a stone-built castle with turrets and dungeons, travellers with no money living rough eat rabbit stew and wear rabbitskin cloaks**, literacy is so all-pervasive that an uneducated man who cannot read and write says of another character “he might as well have ‘Saxon’ stamped on his forehead”, copper coins are a standard medium of exchange and despite the chaos and poverty there is sufficient of a mercantile economy for a hermit living on a wild moor in the middle of nowhere to have ready access to a supply of wine. A crucial plot twist depends on Isolde having a real power of second sight that actually works, and another depends on a character apparently seeing a ghost conjured up by some supernatural power on Isolde’s part. Isolde has somehow induced total amnesia about her entire life prior to the battle of Camlann, apparently by effort of will, and hears strange supernatural voices. That said, there is much less mysticism and magic than in many Arthurian novels, which was a major plus point for me. An early reference to goddess-worship and the Christian church being responsible for the oppression of women had me rolling my eyes, but I was glad to find that the question of religion is more interestingly handled as the book develops, with an open-minded Christian hermit drawing a parallel between magic and miracles.

The pace is leisurely, not to say slow. With its minute-by-minute account of Isolde’s thoughts and feelings, the narrative can take a lot of pages to cover not very much ground. For example, the first two chapters (27 pages) are occupied by Isolde contemplating the body of her dead husband in church, and taking food to two prisoners and tending their injuries occupies 17 pages. About a third of the way in I had hopes that the plot might pick up, as Isolde decides to go in search of a goldsmith-cum-spy who can bear witness to Marche’s treachery, but was disappointed. The narrative promptly bogged down again in a sequence of escape, recapture, re-escape, re-recapture and re-re-escape interspersed with scenes of Isolde nursing just about every other character through illness or injury, the goldsmith was never mentioned again and the urgent need to find proof of Marche’s treasonous dealings seemed to just fade away. I wonder if the book was drastically cut to length and half the plot vanished, leaving these (to my mind) rather annoying loose ends, or if perhaps they are going to be picked up somehow in Books 2 and 3. I also felt the escape-recapture cycle got a bit repetitive for my taste. Guards working for an evil tyrant are traditionally inefficient, partly for plot purposes and partly because tyrannical leadership styles rarely get the best out of their subordinates, but having the same guards fall for the same trick pulled by the same prisoner twice within a few days stretched my credulity.

Twilight of Avalon is very much Isolde’s story, as all events are seen through her eyes and understood through her feelings. Fortunately, Isolde is an attractive and even admirable character. She is essentially powerless, a pawn in the games of kings like Marche, but she is not weak, she never whines and she never gives up. She makes use of her wits, her limited supernatural powers and whatever else comes to hand in her quest to outwit Marche. Isolde is also a gifted storyteller, and numerous tales and legends are nested into the narrative, giving an extra layer of depth to the setting. Isolde dominates the novel so completely that I found my perception of the whole book altering with my reactions to her character. Twilight of Avalon should suit readers who like to identify with a particular character, provided they take to Isolde and her emotional journey.

The secondary characters – everybody else – perhaps divide a little too readily into good and bad, though Madoc of Gwynedd is an interestingly complex character with a mix of qualities. I hope to see more of him in the sequels. I’d have liked to see more of his point of view in this novel, particularly with regard to his apparently sudden change of heart. I’d also have liked to see Trystan’s viewpoint. Isolde’s amnesia governs her reactions to him (and is essential to the plot), but Trystan has no similar amnesia and I was curious about his motivations and his opinion of (and feelings for?) Isolde. He spends most of the novel in a prison cell, almost as powerless as Isolde, yet he clearly has experience and skills as a soldier and a leader of men. I hope Trystan’s role will be further developed in the sequels.

Although billed as Book 1 of a trilogy, Twilight of Avalon feels to me like the first third of a single long book. The mystery of Trystan’s identity is resolved (for those readers who didn’t guess it as soon as he appeared, or at least as soon as he was named), but little else is. The outcome of Marche’s treasonous dealings, the ongoing war, Trystan’s role, Isolde’s position at court, and her relationship with the lesser kings and with Trystan are all To Be Continued.

First instalment in a retelling of the Tristan and Isolde legend, with a strong focus on Isolde’s emotional journey and a refreshingly low quotient of magic and mysticism.

*Madoc of Gwynedd is loosely based on Maelgwn Gwynedd, who is usually identified with Gildas’ Maglocunus, but if the character has done any of the outrageous things for which Gildas castigated his historical counterpart, they don’t feature in the book.

**There’s a debate about whether the Romans or the Normans introduced rabbits to Britain, but in the 13th century rabbit was an expensive luxury food. Rabbits didn’t become the ubiquitous free country pie filling until at least the late Middle Ages.


Rick said...

In some ways this sounds like quite an old-fashioned book, from Isolde nursing everyone in sight back to health to the (refreshing!) relative lack of hoodoo.

Guards working for an evil tyrant are traditionally inefficient, partly for plot purposes and partly because tyrannical leadership styles rarely get the best out of their subordinates, but having the same guards fall for the same trick pulled by the same prisoner twice within a few days stretched my credulity.

LOL. There are indeed valid reasons, in Romance (in the broad sense), for wicked kings to have incompetent guards - just as for Good Kings to have crisply efficient ones. But bad guards shouldn't be too hopelessly incompetent!

Carla said...

I wouldn't exactly call it old-fashioned. The concentration on a (female) character's emotional journey is a popular contemporary style, for example. One of the versions of the legend involves Tristan being poisoned or badly wounded and only Isolde has the power to heal him, so having her as a skilled healer draws on that version of the legend. I quite like that aspect; somebody would have had to pick up the pieces after battle or epidemic, it's most likely to have been the women, and some of them probably became highly skilled at it. And it does seem to be medicine rather than magic here - hurrah! It's also a useful plot point for narrative purposes, as medical skills give a woman a reason to be at the centre of the action without having to make her a (highly implausible) warrior-princess. I use it that way myself, so I'm certainly not going to throw stones! :-) My feeling was that there was maybe too much of a good thing, like the escape-recapture cycle. Once is great, twice is fine, three times and I started thinking, okay, I get it.

Rick said...

Very true that a healing role is more credible than a warrior princess! And an intelligent woman using traditional knowledge was probably far better for the patient than falling into the hands of a premodern physician. :-)

Though - digression alert! - now I wonder whether the stereotype about physicians is a more sophisticated version of 'medieval people never bathed.'

Anna Elliott said...

Thanks for the review, Carla!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm afraid this will be too slow for my taste. I like more action in my books - and I don't mean only battles.

Carla said...

Anna - you're welcome.

Rick - I'm afraid that stereotype is largely deserved. Have a look for a book called Bad Medicine by David Wootton. If you can't get hold of the book itself, the information on his website will give you a good start.

In some limited applications, pre-modern medicine could be of genuine value. Where a medical condition had a single and readily identifiable cause, and where the technology required to correct said cause was available, application of common sense, logic and empirical observation could produce some effective treatments.

For example, setting closed fractures, fixing dislocated joints, draining abscesses, routine hygiene like cleaning foreign objects and dirt out of a wound or applying a bandage and pressure to stop bleeding. You don't have to know about bacteria to observe that wounds full of dirt are inclined to fester, and to conclude that removing dirt might therefore be a Good Idea. It only requires application of common sense to know that a dislocated joint shouldn't look like that and to work out how to manipulate it back into its socket. Some sophisticated procedures go back a surprisingly long way - cataract surgery in Rome, if I remember rightly. I can't remember if it's Hippocrates or Galen, but one or other of them sets out a method for reducing fractures that hardly differs from modern practice. One of the Norse sagas has a woman administering a test meal for an early form of triage. What would now be called 'supportive care' - basically feeding the patient and keeping them clean, warm and rested - would also have helped provide the conditions for the body's healing processes to apply themselves if they could. ("Keeping the patient amused while nature cures the disease", as Voltaire put it).

But in most cases the cause would have been unknown (in some diseases it still is) and the practitioner would be working on little more than guesswork dressed up in jargon, with predictably dismal results.

Carla said...

Gabriele - it is rather on the slow side. I felt the plot could have been covered in 200 pages rather than 400, but I think that's because the focus of the story is on Isolde's emotional journey rather than the events.

Gabriele Campbell said...

A lot of historical fiction these days featuring a female MC is about her journey. There is a readership for it, I'm sure, but I am not the target audience. ;)

Rick said...

I followed the link, and the very odd thing is that the book's 'radical' proposition corresponds to what I took as the conventional wisdom, that a premodern doctor not only wouldn't cure you, he would probably make you worse.

Back to the book, it seems that the author's one serious weakness is beating the reader to death to make a point.

Carla said...

Rick - Some of the philosophical arguments about Bad Medicine are rather over my head :-) I just read it as an interesting survey of the development of medicine.

Rick, Gabriele - Each to their own, and all that. I like a bit more pace, personally, but I can also see how other readers will get absolutely swept up in Isolde and consider 400 pages far too short.