Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[Lisa's Take] Thomas the Rhymer (Ellen Kushner)

You don't see this particular book of Ellen Kushner's in bookstores all that often, so I nabbed a copy when I happened to spot it at Borders. It's a slim little volume, clocking in at only 260ish pages, but it is the winner of the World Fantasy Award in 1991 and has a glowing cover-blurb from Neil Gaiman. Needless to say, my expectations were high.

The story is a novel-style re-telling of the classic ballad of Thomas the Rhymer (who is in turn based upon a real 13th century Scottish laird). According to the ballad, Thomas is seduced be the queen of Elfland and tricked into staying in her fairy world for 7 years. When he returns to the human world she gives him a parting gift of prophecy.

Kushner's take on the story is true to the traditional ballad, but she takes the tack of telling the tale from the point of view of 4 characters: Meg and Gavin, two surrogate parental figures; Elspeth, a friend and potential lover; and Thomas himself. Her approach is interesting and lends a certain depth and sense of realism to the legend.

The prose is lovely, as is always the case with Kushner's work, and the story moves along fairly quickly. Unfortunately, the book never quite connected with me - there was something missing, though I can't for the life of me put my finger on what. I think part of it was that Meg and Gavin seemed a bit shallow as characters; I didn't empathize with them as greatly as I did Thomas and Elspeth. I also thought the story laid it on a little too thick with some of enchantments of the Elfland queen - it got to the point where I found myself thinking "ok, I get it, she's unfathomably desirable and Thomas is hopelessly entranced. Can we move on?"

In the end, I suppose this book was a mixed bag. The writing style was lovely, and it was an interesting way to approach a classic story. Sadly, I felt let down from where my expectations were set by so much glowing praise, which cast a pall on my opinion as a whole. Take from that what you will, and maybe only pick up Thomas the Rhymer if you're in the mood for something classic and poetic.

[Related Aside: I realized in writing this review that I've now been disappointed by 3 or 4 books that I picked up (at least in part) because of a cover-blurb by Neil Gaiman. Maybe I should take a hint: read his books, but not the books he recommends...]

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