Ellen Kushner – Thomas the Rhymer

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.

thomas the rhymerTHOMAS THE RHYMER
by Ellen Kushner

Published by: Spectra, 1990
Ebook: 304 pages
Standalone
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.

divider1

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.

thomas the rhymerBut 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

divider1

Second opinions:

Books in the Queue – The Late Summer Edition

Lately, I’ve been switching between reading slump and reading burst and I have no idea what’s going on. For weeks I can’t bring myself to read more than 10 pages, and then suddenly I devour 3 books in as many days. But whether it’s hormonal or related to the weather, I am currently in that motivated, must-read-all-the-books phase. And because we’re already well into the second half of the year, I am tackling some reading challenges and review copies during the rest of the summer.

divider1

Ellen Kushner – Thomas the Rhymer

(Ages ago) I read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, and then forgot almost everything about it. I remember liking the book while I read it but can’t for the life of me tell you the plot or the character names – which could be either because my memory sucks or because the book really was forgettable. So I was hesitant about Thomas the Rhymer – a few pages in, however, I am positively ecstatic. This will be a good one, I just know it!

thomas the rhymerAward-winning author and radio personality 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.
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.

divider1

Stephen King – Wolves of the Calla (The Dark Tower #5)

Oh man, The Dark Tower has been with me since I was in my teens. I kind of like spreading out this epic series over many years. But the boyfriend (who finished the entire series in a few weeks after I gave him The Gunslinger) keeps pestering me. He wants me to finish it so we can discuss All The Spoilers. Somehow, I got in the mood again to return to my favorite ka-tet.

wolves of the callaRoland Deschain and his ka-tet are bearing south-east through the forests of Mid-World on their quest for the Dark Tower. Their path takes them to the outskirts of Calla Bryn Sturgis. But beyond the tranquil farm town, the ground rises to the hulking darkness of Thunderclap, the source of a terrible affliction that is stealing the town’s soul. The wolves of Thunderclap and their unspeakable depredation are coming. To resist them is to risk all, but these are odds the gunslingers are used to. Their guns, however, will not be enough…

divider1

Sarah Monette – Mélusine

My one big hope for this year’s Hugos is that The Goblin Emperor takes home the award for best novel. I loved that book so, so much! As I’ve owned a paperback copy of  Mélusine for over a decade, I thought it was time to finally read more by Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette. This sounds dark and tragic and absolutely wonderful (despite the cover).

melusineMélusine — a city of secrets and lies, pleasure and pain, magic and corruption — and destinies lost and found.
Felix Harrowgate is a dashing, highly respected wizard. But his aristocratic peers don’t know his dark past — how his abusive former master enslaved him, body and soul, and trained him to pass as a nobleman. Within the walls of the Mirador — Melusine’s citadel of power and wizardry — Felix believed he was safe. He was wrong. Now, the horrors of his previous life have found him and threaten to destroy all he has since become.
Mildmay the Fox is used to being hunted. Raised as a kept-thief and trained as an assassin, he escaped his Keeper long ago and lives on his own as a cat burglar. But now he has been caught by a mysterious foreign wizard using a powerful calling charm. And yet the wizard was looking not for Mildmay — but for Felix Harrowgate.” Thrown together by fate, the broken wizard Felix and the wanted killer Mildmay journey far from Melusine through lands thick with strange magics and terrible demons of darkness. But it is the shocking secret from their pasts, linking them inexorably together, that will either save them, or destroy them.

divider1

Zen Cho – Sorcerer to the Crown (Sorcerer Royal #1)

Aaaaaah, I got a review copy of this and I’m so excited! Zen Cho’s novella The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo wasn’t a great hit with me, but mostly because it was too short. I loved the language and just wanted more time to get to know the characters. Now Cho has written a novel which promises all those things. Plus magic.

sorcerer to the crownIn this sparkling debut, magic and mayhem clash with the British elite…
The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

divider1

Fran Wilde – Updraft

Another review copy! I actually really dislike the cover but I’ve been hearing so many great things from early readers that I couldn’t resist. The story sounds ambitious and intriguing. Having never read anything by Fran Wilde, I’m curious how this will turn out.

updraftIn a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves.
Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.
Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.
As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever—if it isn’t destroyed outright.

divider1

Now I’m only hoping that my current reading mood persists and I can catch up on everything I missed in July. Seriously, I only read two books in July. TWO! But August looks to be a quiet month at work so I’m hoping I will find enough time to read all these beauties up there.