I have adored the tale of Tristan and Iseult since I stumbled it across it when looking into Arthurian legends. I bloody love Arthurian legends btw. Soon after becoming aware of the story I found an old Puffin version by Rosemary Sutcliff that I’ve loved ever since. Her retelling has always been the only one for me…but recently I discovered this…
In a land of fog and desperate tribes, Tristan fights to protect western Briton from Saxon invaders. In the wake of battle, he returns to Kernow bearing grave news, and the order of power shifts. As Tristan defends the west, his uncle, King Mark, faces enemies to the east beyond the sea: the Irish Bloodshields. Mark is determined to unite the tribes of Briton and Ireland and forge an alliance that would see an end to war and the beginnings of peace. Iseult, the daughter of Irish kings and a woman of the blood, resigns herself to her inevitable fate: marriage to Lord Morholt. A bloody duel changes her course, and she finds herself stranded on the coast of Kernow bringing with her the possibility of peace. But when she loses her heart to one man and marries another, her future and that of Briton flutters grey. Three people and a hope that will never fade, this is a story of promise; the legend of love. Image and Synopsis from Goodreads.
Due to the aforementioned circumstances I’m sure you can understand why I went into this a bit sceptical. At first I found that the simple, almost brisk sentences came out a bit wooden but after a few paragraphs the style really started to flow and I started to enjoy it, a lot.
It captures the time and essence of the story I know and love really well.
The book is written from both Tristan and Iseult’s point of views – each having alternative chapters – which I thought would annoy me but it actually turned out to be really great. This way Iseult is able to show us in the very beginning how revolting Morholt, her husband-to-be really is, which kind of helps us realise later why she agrees to marry King Mark when she is clearly in love with Tristan- his Nephew and chosen heir to the throne. Going from something so bad to something ‘safe’ can’t be too bad after all can it?
I did wish that the two characters had more distinct voices though, as they both sounded the same in my head and I had to constantly remind myself whose chapter it was. However, Smith builds up the lust and romance between Tristan and Iseult beautifully. I was absolutely hooked and invested in the story which is probably why I got so angry that Tristan encouraged her to marry Mark in the first place…I mean, the King loves him, all he had to do was say! I’m not sure I was totally convinced that he did it due to his guilt of the King’s son Rufus’ death. But hey ho.
Alas, King Mark and Iseult are married and clearly everyone, apart from the King is miserable. The King in fact just seems to swan off a lot on King-like business leaving Tristan and Iseult alone with a million will they-won’t they moments which was INFURIATING to say the least. Not in a bad way. In a I have to keep reading way.
And then. THEN, we skip to 20 years ahead…are you shitting me J.D Smith?
Anyway (deep breaths), without giving too much away, this is a pretty different retelling than the Suttcliff version and I do think it lacked a certain proportion of passion and excitement due to some choices Smith made with the material but I don’t mean that to sound so bad.
It is a quick, enjoyable read that has captured the essence of the medieval, Celtic folklore that the story originated from, whilst also creating more contemporary feel to it.
I’m tempted to give this 4 out 5 because I was hooked all the way through, but the last third of the story let it down for me so I have settled on 3/5 unicorns. If I could bring myself to chop one in half, I would.
Tristan and Iseult by J.D Smith is published by @TriskeleBooks