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.

Susanna Clarke, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’ (review)


Gorgeous. Enthralling. Captivating. Mesmerising. These are all words I certainly didn’t use when I first attempted to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a few years ago, finally abandoning it around the 600-page mark. I remembered little about the book, except that I quite enjoyed it at first but found that it soon became dry and laborious. However, I recently came to realise that I might be the only person in existence who has a problem with the book, and so resigned myself to give it another go . . . and WOW am I glad I did.
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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, ostensibly, a tale of two magicians named Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But this is far too simplistic a description for what is actually a lengthy, beautiful, meandering tale of magic and ambition and rivalry and friendship, told over the span of a decade and often focusing on subplots and minor characters as much as on its two main protagonists.

In Clarke’s alternative nineteenth-century England, magic is considered a lost art. Not since the disappearance of the Raven King – a legendary magician who once ruled the North – and his successors have there been any true magicians. That is, until Mr Norrell makes himself known as the only practical magician in England, and possibly the world. The fashionable people of London are delighted by such a novelty, while the government see in him an opportunity to gain advantage in the war against Napoleon. When a second magician presents himself to Mr Norrell as a pupil it seems everything is going splendidly . . . but it doesn’t take long before professional disagreements, a string of tragedies, and the interference of a mysterious gentlemanly antagonist begin to make both Strange and Norrell think twice about their ambition to restore magic to England.

Clarke’s story, and the alternative England in which it takes place, is incredibly detailed and ambitious, astonishingly so when considering that this is the work of a debut author. Although the plot itself is anything but focused, this is clearly an intentional quirk that only adds to the novel’s charm, and the sense of unexpectedness created by the winding series of events is just one of the things that kept me reading. Though meandering, the story is nonetheless coherent and engaging. Each chapter is titled with the month and year in which it takes place, which is particularly helpful in keeping track of events; and an abundance of footnotes alternately provides the reader with additional information, historical references and fascinating anecdotes, adding further charm and depth to an already rich and satisfying reading experience.

Furthermore, the pages are filled with beautifully vivid and evocative descriptions: of magical forests and city streets in winter, of candlelit libraries and dark landscapes, of ruined castles and mysterious roads. The author doesn’t just set the scene; she dazzles the reader with striking imagery and envelops them in an atmosphere both hauntingly magical and poignantly melancholy.

Clarke bravely and successfully attempts to emulate nineteenth-century novelists in both subject and tone. The result is a delightful hybrid of Austen’s droll social satire and ironic commentary and Dickens’s comical caricatures and perceptive observations of city life. On the other hand, the dry humour suffusing the whole is, I suspect, entirely the author’s own, and it is this mocking, almost self-deprecating voice that provides entertainment at times when arguably nothing is happening plot-wise. I particularly enjoyed the satirical portrait of Mr Norrell that continues throughout the novel: Norrell is somewhat despicable what with his jealous hoarding of knowledge, rudeness to others and egotistical sense of his own superiority, not to mention his hypocrisy; and yet he is also clever and fascinating, and I found myself turning page after page just to see what he would do next.

Of course, both protagonists are entertaining in their own way, but it’s the brilliantly varied cast of secondary characters that really helps them to shine: Drawlight is despicable yet strangely sympathetic; Lascelles is clever and manipulative; Stephen Black is noble yet naïve; Childermass is wry and enigmatic. And (naturally) none are quite as secondary as they first appear, least of all the spectacular villain known only as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

Despite Mr Norrell’s ongoing attempts to categorise it in lists and trap it in books, the magic of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is ephemeral, mutable and largely unexplained. In this day and age, where works of fantasy are too often judged by how fastidious and logical their magic rules and ‘systems’ are, I can’t stress how refreshing it is to read a work instead suffused with nebulous magic, myths and legends, where the limits and possibilities and, indeed, reasons for magic remain mostly unknown.

I’ll admit that I became a little disheartened not long after beginning the book, largely because it seemed to be taking so long to read. However I soon realised I was more than happy to linger over each page, to take the time to appreciate each word, and even to re-read lines and passages that particularly appealed. By the time I finally approached the end I deliberately slowed my pace even further, to savour the final moments of this extraordinary book that I once disliked but now utterly adore and admire. I’m running out of ways to express how much I loved this book, so I’ll end with an incoherent string of adjectives. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is gorgeous. It’s enthralling. It’s surprising. It’s captivating. It’s mesmerising. It’s hilarious. It’s heart-breaking.

It might even be the best book I’ve ever read.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 17th May 2015)


Blurb

The year is 1806, England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation’s past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains, the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French.

Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrell. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.