I know very little about the Thomas the Rhymer tale, just the basic brief outline of the plot. What I got from Ellen Kushner was a lyrical tale, not like anything I expected.
Thomas is a talented harper, but also a bit cocky. He’s in at court, making his living wooing women with his fine words and lies. Something happens and he has to leave court; he finds his way to a farming community and takes up with an elderly couple. There he meets Elspeth, a country girl with spirit. She falls for him first, but he’s too caught up in himself to notice much. Then, one day, the beautiful Queen of Faeries comes to him, offers him herself in exchange for seven years of service. Of course he takes it. She takes him away, without saying goodbye; he serves his time and returns with one caveat: he can no longer tell a lie.
It’s a very earthy novel, one that’s filled with images of hearth and home. Weaving plays a role, as does bread-making and feasting. The things Thomas misses most when he’s with the faerie are the simple things: he has opulence, but not the smell of baking bread. The things that endear Thomas to Elspeth in the end are the things of the mortal world: she’s not as beautiful as the queen, but she’s more real, more earthy. The story spans most of Thomas’ life, from the time before he meets the faeries through to his death. It’s a huge amount of time to cover, but Kushner’s writing is such that the time span doesn’t weigh the book down.
In the end, I liked it, but it wasn’t quite I was expecting. I think I was expecting more about his time in faerie, or something more grand or significant when it came to the consequences of his choice to go to faerie. It was a subtle book, almost too subtle. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable; it was incredibly well-written, and Kushner knows how to spin a tale. But it lacks excitement, and while there’s sex (though not graphic), there’s no romance. I enjoyed the tale, but I never really connected with it.
And I missed that.
Rated: Mild for some non-graphic sex scenes (mostly just references to them) and mild swearing.