Friday, March 18, 2011

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

photo: Nicholas

"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory."

Sir Francis Drake (c. 1540-1596), English navigator and engineer
Letter to Sir Francis Walsingham, 17 May 1587

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review: DARK MOON OF AVALON by Anna Elliott

One benefit of having writer friends is the opportunity to read their work and discover exciting worlds. Anna Elliott's DARK MOON OF AVALON (Touchstone, 2010) opened up for me a new and thoroughly engaging perspective on the Arthurian legends of sixth-century Britain.

DARK MOON is the second book in her TWILIGHT OF AVALON series and the first I've read. In this novel, Former High Queen Isolde embarks on a dangerous diplomatic mission. She must persuade the rulers of smaller kingdoms from Ireland to Cornwall to ally themselves with King Madoc as he fights to keep Britain from falling into the hands of a ruthless despot, Lord Marche. Accompanying Isolde is Trystan, her childhood friend and unacknowledged true love. The couple's physical journey parallels their emotional one as they struggle to understand their feelings for each other and heal from abusive relationships with Marche, who is Trystan's father and Isolde's ex-husband. Aided by a band of outlaws who once slaved alongside Trystan in the mines, Isolde sets into motion a daring and dangerous plan to turn Marche's allies against him. Although success leads to the usurper's defeat, it forces Isolde to surrender Trystan once again to peril as he sets out on a rescue mission, the segue into the series's forthcoming third installment.

It was a bit disconcerting to jump into the middle of the story without having read the first book, but Elliott does such an excellent job of weaving the backstory into the present action that it didn't me take too long to find my bearings. I soon discovered that Elliott's version of the Tristan and Isolde legend differs significantly from the story familiar to me from my graduate studies. Most readers who come to the book with any previous knowledge of the tale know late medieval versions of the legend that reflect thirteenth century notions of courtly love. Elliott, however, was more interested in exploring the earlier, Celtic origins of the tale. Accordingly, in her novels Trystan is the son rather than the nephew of King Marche--she bases this on an inscription found on a period gravestone. The non-adulterous passion Trystan and Isolde share finds its roots in the surviving fragment of an early Welsh version of the story that has a happy, rather than tragic, ending. Elliott's strategy of molding her novel along ancient Celtic rather than medieval French lines provides an intriguing and refreshing flavor to the telling of the tale.

The supernatural plays a role the novel, but it is not overwhelming. Granddaughter of the sorceress Morgan, Isolde has the gift of the Sight, which allows her to catch glimpses of the future in the scrying waters. She uses this gift when faced with important decisions or in dangerous situations, but the visions she sees are often fragmentary and inconclusive. Of more help to her is her ability to feel others' pain. Isolde is a healer, and her ability to experience others' pain--emotional as well as physical--allows her not only to treat them more effectively but to draw them out of the despair and hopelessness that beset them. She has a harder time healing herself from her own emotional wounds; fears and misconceptions keep her from acknowledging and admitting her feelings for Trystan (tormented by his own feelings of guilt and unworthiness), for most of the book. Isolde impressed me as a compassionate, courageous, noble-minded yet thoroughly human heroine striving to save her soul as well as her country from the ravages of war.

This is the greatest strength of Elliott's writing: her ability to create fully-formed, convincing characters who combine emotional depth with endearing idiosyncrasies. From Madoc, the disfigured and beleaguered British king who dares hope Isolde might become his wife; to Fidach, the flamboyant leader of the outcasts who cultivates the reputation of a man without honor yet lives by the highest standards; to self-effacing Eurig, Trystan's loyal friend, who surrendered his wife to another man rather than cause her unhappiness, DARK MOON is peopled with characters fashioned with a keen understanding of psychology. Trystan and Isolde yearn to be together, but suffer from past trauma that prevents them from reaching out. Only as Britain routs Marche on the battlefield do the lovers break free of his
hold over them and find solace and a future in their love for each other.

The TWILIGHT OF AVALON trilogy is a gripping and convincing foray into the world of sixth century Britain. Start with the first novel, TWILIGHT OF AVALON (Touchstone, 2009)--I can't wait to go back and read it myself. The third book of the series, SUNRISE OF AVALON, will appear this September. You can learn more about the AVALON series at Elliott's website. And there's always the touching post she wrote about writing and motherhood when DARK MOON was published last fall. Thank you, Anna, for breathing new life into this timeless legend.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Elizabethan Compendium

Although it focuses on England rather than France, here is an entertaining website chock-full of information on life during Elizabeth I's reign--a great way to pass some time when you're stuck writing a scene. [wry grin] Thanks to Susan Higginbotham for reminding me of it!