Review: Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner

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Lovely but far too short, Thomas the Rhymer is a retelling of an old tale by the same name, which tells the story of a poet and harper who is by the Queen of Elfland to serve her for seven years and returns being unable to tell a lie.

What songs do you sing to them in Elfland? There, where all the songs are true, and all stories history…I have seen lovers walking in those glades, with gentle hands and shining faces, their feet light upon the grass, where little flowers shone in the shadows as though the lovers trod the starry firmament. And some I almost recognized: Niamh of the Shining Hair with Irish Oisian; Fair Aucassin with his gentle Nicolette; and two kingly men with their arms around one graceful, merry queen…other faces, other figures strangely arrayed, each one with their own story, no doubt, and now at peace, with all stories done.

The story is divided into four sections, each from the point of view of another character: Gavin, a farmer who gives Thomas shelter, Thomas himself, Gavin’s wife Meg, and Elspeth, a girl he loved. Thomas himself starts off as a bit of a frivolous womaniser (slightly reminiscent of Kvothe at points…), but grows up quite a bit over the course of the story. Fittingly, the writing style is poetic and lyrical and absolutely wonderful, and each character has their own distinguishable voice, though along with the POV split it does create a certain distance from the story. There are also many Scottish words scattered throughout the text (bonnie, bairn instead of child, weird meaning fate…), which gives it a nice atmosphere as well.

Overall, I found the book very enjoyable, a perfect short read for during a slump. The writing, my general weakness for atmospheric retellings and folktale-inspired stories, the large focus on everyday life, the insights into how he composes his poems, the bittersweet taste the ending left…wonderful. Still, I wish certain parts were expanded upon more and I’m not sure if the POV split worked for me. Perhaps I should have read on the original story/poem beforehand.

Enjoyment: 4/5
Execution: 4/5

Recommended to: fans of retellings, prose nerds
Not recommended to: those who hate it when parts of the story are glossed over, anyone looking for fast-paced stories

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