Ruth Nestvold, ‘Yseult’ (SPFBO review)


Yseult reached the semi-finals in the 2nd annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This review was originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 31st August 2016.

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A Tale of Love in the Age of King Arthur. A fitting subtitle, but in general one that is likely to discourage more readers than it attracts.

Romance in fantasy is a contentious issue. Lots of readers (myself included) are relatively indifferent to it, and neither seek it out nor avoid it. On the other hand, I’ve seen many an online discussion on the topic in which the majority of comments fall into two categories: ‘love it’ and ‘oh dear god MY EYES’. And this is a real shame, because it means that the latter will always miss out on well-written, beautiful stories such as Yseult.

Ruth Nestvold’s retelling of Tristan and Isolde is a solid adaptation that manages to capture the mischief and high spirits of Béroul’s original translation, as well as evoke a convincing sense of Arthurian Britain. From the humble roundhouses of Eriu to the dramatic promontory of Dyn Tagell, Yseult is rich in vivid settings that draw us in and anchor us firmly in the characters’ place and time.

Yseult by Ruth NestvoldNestvold’s writing has a charming quality, suffused with the quiet confidence of long familiarity with her characters and the world in which they play. The tone and style – along with the carefully-researched druidic, Celtic and Roman place names – sound authentic but not archaic; and while I did find myself a little bewildered at times (particularly at the start!) the wonderfully comprehensive glossary quickly cleared up any confusion.

Another aspect of Yseult which I admire is the skillful way the author maintains a cohesive timeline – without feeling the need to fill in all the gaps. The first section in particular is very well structured, cutting between important scenes with minimal disorientation; and the epistolary-style segments are a nice way of bridging the later chapters in a way that avoids repetition and unnecessary detail. On the whole, the pacing is similarly controlled, though some of us felt that it was perhaps a little *too* languorous in places. This, along with the occasionally ponderous prose, was the main issue cited by those of us who struggled to engage with Yseult. In fact, it was the only real sticking point on which we just could not seem to agree!

Speaking for myself, the issues I had with the book arose from what I perceived as unevenness. The entirety of part one – which is excellent, by the way – centres on the trials and inner strength of Yseult’s mother in addition to the childhood and adolescence of Yseult herself. So when the fabled romance finally began in part two I was somewhat taken aback by the way it was presented. It begins sweetly, and is interwoven with other events that keep the story rolling. But when our two protagonists finally get frisky, the frequent use of (for example) words like ‘ass’ and ‘cock’ when describing sex scenes felt jarring and not at all consistent with the subtle character development, beautiful Irish words and mellifluous descriptions to which I’d become accustomed.

Not only does it feel as though the sex scenes were written by a totally different author, the story itself seems less compelling the more it focuses on Drystan and Yseult. In fact, I almost abandoned the book at one point: despite thoroughly enjoying part one, I began to find the story tedious. Increasingly frequent repetition – particularly the author’s fixation with describing Yseult’s ‘moonlight’ hair and Drystan’s ‘forest-green’ eyes – started to really grate on my nerves. But it wasn’t until I reached the 44%-mark that I realised – with much disappointment – I just wasn’t enjoying Yseult enough to justify continuing with it.

Thankfully, I went back to it a few days later; and after a bit of perseverance I started to realise that Nestvold’s ‘tale of love’ encompasses far more than ‘just’ romance. Each and every character is motivated by different kinds of love, sometimes simultaneously and often conflicting. Yseult finds herself torn between her romantic love for Drystan and filial love for her mother, cousin and son. Marcus is motivated by self-love; Kurvenal, by platonic love for his best friend. Arthur is driven by love for his country, and everywhere deeds both good and evil are committed in the name of love and loyalty to one’s religion.

On the whole, Yseult is strongly reminiscent of Mary Stewart’s fantastic Arthurian Saga: a patient, introspective narrative that concerns itself mostly with magic, politics and belief. Nestvold takes the same murky time period, adds a familiar legend and then remoulds it with enough creative flourishes to make it feel fresh and original. The author develops her characters well (although antagonists such as Marcus and Andred are too-quickly painted as unsympathetic villains) and makes sure to give them and her readers a suitably poetic send-off at the last.

The Verdict: After reading a swathe of SPFBO entries that tended more towards the traditional/epic we found this historical fantasy to be a rather captivating change of pace. However, while we all agreed it was well written, not all of us found it engaging. We acknowledged that others’ opinions would likely differ as vastly as our own, which is why we’ve made the decision to eliminate Yseult in favour of others with the potential to appeal to a broader audience.

Aloha, August!


I can’t say I’ve ever used the word ‘awhirl’ in casual conversation before – well, apart from just now – but I’ve spent the past month awhirl in Cool Book Stuff™. Such as . . .

Cool Book Stuff™ #1

I’m now officially a member of the Fantasy-Faction team!

Fantasy-Faction

I’ve followed the site – co-edited by Marc Aplin and Jennifer Ivins – for years, and have always admired the quality of its articles and the regularity of its reviews. I’m flattered and grateful, excited and proud beyond belief to be able to call myself part of the team. (I’ve got a PAGE and everything!)

Cool Book Stuff™ #1.1

And as if that wasn’t amazing enough, I now get to join in with the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (#SPFBO) for the first time. And as part of the F-F judging panel, no less!

SPFBO2 Banner by Matt Howerter

graphic by Matt Howerter

I’m a bit late to the party, but playing catch-up has been a lot of fun. I’ve read, scored and commented on the opening chapters of at least ten submissions, many of which have pleasantly surprised me. In fact, there’s more than one that I’ll probably go on to read even if it doesn’t make it through this round.


Cool Book Stuff™ #2

As you can probably guess, my own writing has taken a bit of a back seat whilst I focus not only on reading and reviewing, but also beta reading.

It’s been pretty much one year exactly since my first ever writing buddy (Kareem Mahfouz: notorious whiskey-sponge with the enviable power to pull entire storylines out of his arse as he writes) sent me the first prologue of the first draft of his first novel. Now – twelve months and 192,000 words later – I have the final part of his first draft to read and feed back on, which I’m REALLY looking forward to.

In fact, I got so excited by the story that I made a thing inspired by Kareem’s favourite character:

'Mouse'

Remember the name: Kareem Mahfouz. You heard about him here first, people!


Cool Book Stuff™ #3

Danse Macabre by Laura M HughesMy own word count may have ground to a temporary halt, but the reviews for my novelette, Danse Macabre, have been unexpectedly flooding in!

It’s a very small flood, I’ll grant you. But quality beats quantity every time.

Seasoned reviewer James McStravick shared his thoughts over on his blog, The Observant Raven; and the excellent T.O. Munro (author of Lady of the Helm) penned a particularly detailed and thoughtful review in which he called Danse Macabre “well-written”, “ingenious” and “captivating”.

To be honest, I’m still in shock. Awesome-shock.


Cool Book Stuff™ #4

Since my Kindle (Mr. Norrell) appears to have gorged himself on ALL THE THINGS over the last few months, I’ve compiled some of the best-looking indie books he’s found into a reading list:

Indie Reading List, August 2016Just look at those bad boys! Norrell’s definition of ‘new’ is somewhat questionable – I’ve had some of those books since the last SPFBO! – but still. Enticing, eh?

Right now I’m working through The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham (which is great, by the way), but it shouldn’t be too long before I get around to this little beauty:

Valley of Embers by Steven KelliherThat’s an eARC of the upcoming Valley of Embers by indie author Steven Kelliher. The first in the Landkist saga, it’ll be available to buy on 16th August 2016 from Amazon.


That’s it (for now). July, I’m sorry to see you go. You’ve been a really positive month for me. August, you– oi! August! Listen! You have a lot to live up to, so you’d better start right now.

Oh! And for those who’re interested in the brilliant SPFBO, I urge you to take a few moments to check out the main page on Mark Lawrence’s site. Like, right now.