Many years ago, I read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint – well loved among fandom and almost completely forgotten by me. I barely remember anything about the book, its characters, or the plot – so naturally, I wasn’t at all sure if I would like another Ellen Kushner novel. Turns out my worries were unnecessary and I’ll have to give Swordspoint (and the other Riverside books) another chance.
Published by: Spectra, 1990
Ebook: 304 pages
My rating: 8/10
First sentence: I’m not a teller of tales, not like the Rhymer.
A minstrel lives by his words, his tunes, and sometimes by his lies. But when the bold and gifted young Thomas the Rhymer awakens the desire of the powerful Queen of Elfland, he finds that words are not enough to keep him from his fate. As the Queen sweeps him far from the people he has known and loved into her realm of magic, opulence – and captivity – he learns at last what it is to be truly human. When he returns to his home with the Queen’s parting gift, his great task will be to seek out the girl he loved and wronged, and offer her at last the tongue that cannot lie. Award-winning author Ellen Kushner’s inspired retelling of an ancient legend weaves myth and magic into a vivid contemporary novel about the mysteries of the human heart. Brimming with ballads, riddles, and magical transformations, here is the timeless tale of a charismatic bard whose talents earn him a two-edged otherworldly gift.
I didn’t know the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer before picking up this retelling (still haven’t read it), so I went into this knowing nothing except what the blurb told me. I knew I was in for a sort of fairy tale, something medieval, with elves and riddles and music and maybe a romance. Ellen Kushner delivered all of this but instead of a sweeping epic tale involving grand armies, she tells Thomas’ story through the eyes of a small circle of four connected characters.
We are introduced to Thomas the Rhymer by an old shepherd named Gavin. He and his wife Meg live comfortably in their small village and gladly take in the travelling bard when he shows up on their doorstep. Of this chance encounter, a friendship is born and Thomas almost becomes a son to Gavin and Meg. This was so beautiful to read – although Thomas disappears for months on end only to show up unexpected again, there is so much love between these three. I have always believed that family has nothing to do with blood relation, and Thomas, Gavin, and Meg are a great (if fictional) example of this. There are scenes of idyllic life, sitting around the hearth and doing chores while listening to Tom’s music, and those scenes are better than any epic battle could be.
During his time at Gavin and Meg’s house, Thomas also meets young Elspeth. It is clear that these two young people are falling in love but Thomas – normally quick to seduce the women he likes with his wit and his music – stays surprisingly distant. They bicker, but then they share quiet moments of tenderness, then they ignore each other again. In fact, by being so very un-Thomas-like (normally cocky, flirtatious, talkative), he shows more of his true feelings than he knows. I felt a bit like an intruder or a voyeur, watching these characters, interpreting their actions, and grinning to myself the same way Meg does as she watches them.
But one day, lying idly under the Eildon tree, Thomas meets the Queen of Elfland. Her beauty overwhelms him and he dares to kiss her – after which she sweeps him away to Elfland, with a few conditions… At this point, we shift perspective and hear directly from Thomas what happens in the seven years that follow. Bound by his promise to the Queen, he must not speak to anyone except her during his stay in Elfland. He is allowed to sing, however, and so musically unravels a mystery, a riddle set him by Hunter, the Queen’s fairy adversary (of a sort). Thomas’ experience at the Elvin court, despite being the Queen’s own lover, is not all happiness and flowers. This dreamlike chapter contains an almost self-contained story that inspires one of Thomas’ ballads. I enjoyed how alien the elves were portrayed, how human feelings are nothing to them, but how that doesn’t necessarily make them unkind. Kushner also did great job with her world-building, in that Elfland has a dynamic of its own that is completely independent of Thomas’ arrival. There were feuds and intrigues, riddles and games, all begun long before Thomas even knew Elfland was real. And these games and riddles will continue long after he has left again.
When his seven years are done and Thomas is returned to the human world, it is Meg who tells of his homecoming. Once again, we are back to this loving old couple who will gladly forgive the rhymer for disappearing so long without a word. His time in Elfland has changed Thomas, and not only because of the last gift the Elf Queen bestowed on him – the tongue that cannot lie. Reading about this new Thomas, seeing how his old friends react to him and how he, in turn, reacts differently to certain situations than he would have before, was fascinating. I drank in the words and waited eagerly for a reunion with Elspeth. That girl spent seven years without word of the man she loved and quite naturally moved on with her own life. Again, I caught myself watching these characters, trying to predict how a meeting between them would end. Would Elspeth hate Thomas, would she ignore him? Would he beg her forgiveness? Or play it cool again?
It is Elspeth who tells the last chapter of this book, and it was her perspective that made me appreciate how well fleshed-out all these characters were in a story whose main focus is definitely the titular rhymer. Thomas is the glue that holds them all together, even in absentia. While Gavin and Meg are lovable, honest people, Thomas and Elspeth each change and grow as characters. That said, this last chapter is the one dealing with Thomas’ “gift” of being able to only answer truthfully to any question. Although there is an underlying feeling of what this does to him as a person, more could have been done with the idea. Powerful people visit him to find out their future, Thomas’ family learns to be careful about how the frame questions adressed to him. But until the very end, there wasn’t a real sense of the burden such a gift really is. It’s my one gripe with the novel, and considering that this part is told through Elspeth’s perspective, I can understand why this theme wasn’t explored more. Maybe another shift to Thomas’ perspective would have done the trick – I certainly would have loved it.
This is a big tale shown through a small, intimate lens. I fell in love with the characters and I adored the language, especially that of Thomas’ songs. That mood of being in the center of a myth, of watching it be created, permeates the whole book. Thomas the Rhymer is an atmospheric read, featuring four wonderful characters. If you like quiet stories without big plot twists, that focus on character development and language, then this is for you. I know that it made me want to read more books by Ellen Kushner.
MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent