Isolde, queen of Britain in the 6th century, has just lost her husband King Constantine and finds herself adrift and powerless in a court suddenly full of enemies. A generation has passed since the fall of Arthur and Camelot and infighting is on track to destroy the fragile alliance among the Britons at a moment in which strength is needed to conquer the threatening Saxons. Isolde, daughter of Arthur’s bastard son and murderer Mordred, is accused of witchcraft and sorcery and despite her suspicions, no one trusts her word; this dismays her even more because she has lost both her memories and her Sight. She finds compassion stirred when she visits two Saxon prisoners, aiding them to end their misery by giving them a knife. When she flees, she finds that one of them, Trystan, has escaped and becomes her trusted companion as she fights to save the British kingdom.
I have read many, many versions of Arthurian legends. I took a class in them and I have a personal interest in them, so I’ve read mostly everything from the origins to the present day. At times it feels like it’s impossible for a book to feel fresh and new and exciting when it’s working in this genre. If so, Anna Elliott has definitely achieved the impossible. I could recognize the echoes of the original Welsh legends in this book – the relations between the characters are notable in this instance – but at the same time this is a book (and I suspect will be a trilogy) that stands completely on its two feet.
Twilight of Avalon is grounded in historical fiction with some added magical elements; the author herself plays with the concept that legend is always more far-fetched than truth. For example, when Merlin is sent on a particularly dangerous mission for Isolde, he asks her to say that a beautiful enchantress has stolen him away to the Hollow Hills to explain his disappearance if he dies. Many of us will recognize that as exactly what happens in most versions of the legend.
I really liked one of the narrative strategies that Elliott used. Isolde has lost most of her memory from before a traumatic event in her life. So, she’s lost most of the power she had, and she thinks it’s because she purposely blocked out half her life. In this novel, she slowly regains memories, and by hearing the voices of the deceased come back to her, she learns gradually about her own life. In my opinion, this is a clever strategy to catch the reader up on both the Arthurian legends (in case they have somehow managed to avoid exposure) while building Isolde’s character and history. Elliott’s writing is a pleasure to read and very easily absorbing; I find it harder and harder to really get into books these days and I was thrilled that I could just sink into this one at any time.
Isolde herself is a strong woman, determined to make her world sit properly on its axis to the best of her ability and admirably devoted to Britain. Trystan is a hardened warrior who has seen people at their worst but who is willing to support and save Isolde when necessary. So far, they work well together, and the romance hasn’t even begun yet. I thought the secondary characters were fairly well fleshed out, too, especially Trystan’s little band.
I loved Twilight of Avalon and it definitely receives my enthusiastic recommendation. This is a keeper and I find myself excitedly anticipating the second volume in the trilogy, out next year.