Here's a book for those who love dark historical fiction with a touch of fantasy, and who are fascinated by the legends of King Arthur--Twilight of Avalon, a Novel of Trystan and Isolde, by Anna Elliott (Simon and Schuster, 2009, 426pp, technically a book for adults, but one with YA appeal as well).
"if you know who I am," [Isolde] said after a moment, "then you known, also, who my father was. Modred-the traitor. Cause of King Arthur's death and seven years of land-bleeding civil war."
Isolde is still young, widowed after the death of her young husband, Constantine, who became king when the civil war ended. From her grandmother, Morgan, she inherited the gift of sight, but she cannot see her own future. Caught in the struggle for power that has followed Constantine's death, trapped inside Tintagel Castle, and suspected of witchcraft, Isolde struggles to save what is left of Britain from the Saxons, and from those who would betray it. At last she escapes into Cornwall, and finds that her fate is tied inexorably with that of Trystan, a former prisoner with a dark past of his own. But will they be able to secure a future for themselves and their kingdom?
This is dark, atmospheric, and heavy stuff. Slowly Elliott makes clear the walls of intrigue and hatred that surround Isolde inside Tintagel, and she is not sparring in her details of the harm men and women do to each other. It is not until page 206 that she escapes Tintagel, and so well has Elliott created a claustrophobic setting of incredible tension that it comes as a great relief to the reader, as well as Isolde, to have left it behind. But then her visions return to her, and draw her back to the violence that continues within its walls...
The romance aspect of the book comes slowly. I imagine that it will be more front and central in the next book of the series, The Dark Moon of Avalon, coming in Spring 2010. The magical element of Isolde's visions gives color and interest to the plot, but does not take the story so far into fantasy as to be a turn-off to those who like straight historical fiction. Despite the link between Isolde and the old magic and beliefs of Celtic Britain, Elliott presents the tensions between older beliefs and the relatively new Christian religion even-handedly.
Although the pace of the book is slow and strongly focused on Isolde's minute by minute experiences, which might not appeal to all readers, Elliott has done a fine job bringing a relatively unexplored story of the Arthur legend to life, creating an Isolde who is believable and brave--an actor in her own right.
Tintagel Castle is a truly stunning place, by the way. I've been a few times, and am always impressed. I'm curious to know if Elliott has ever been--one of my few specific quibbles with the historical accuracy of the book (and this is actually high praise, as I read books about periods I know something about somewhat suspiciously) was with her descriptions of the castle.
Longer reviews can be found at Carla Nayland Historical Fiction and Tanzanite's Shelf and Stuff.
Note: copy received from the author.