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The Isle of Glass by Judith Tarr

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Alfred of St Ruan’s Abbey was content to live as a quiet monk among his brethren, who did not remark upon his impossibly youthful face, healing talents and uncanny ability to ‘see’ into the minds of others. None would even think to ask him if he were of the Elven-kind. Yet inevitably there came a time when events intruded on the tranquility of the cloisters, and Alfred had to face the harsh realities of the England of Richard the Lionheart. Thrust reluctantly into the temporal world – a world unwilling to accept one of the Fair Folk as a priest of God – Alfred confronts his unacknowledged self. Part man, part priest, part elf-kind, he must choose his own destiny.
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I picked up Isle of Glass after Kari Sperring talked enthusiastically and passionately about Judith Tarr’s historical fantasy work at Dysprosium last week. In some ways, I’ll be rehashing what she said about the books; but since she spoke more generally, I’ll only be discussing things appearing in this volume, and will touch on some things she did not.

The best way to discuss Isle of Glass is by contrast with its first chapter. Tarr has written a sparkling, scintillating, multifaceted gem of a novel; unfortunately, the first facet one sees on approach is the marred, scarred, dull one, that is unfortunately necessary to overcome in order to get to the rest of this beautiful construction.

The deepest scarring of this facet, to continue the metaphor, is also what shines brightest in the rest of the novel: characterisation. In the first chapter we meet Alfred, a foundling monk, and his friend from childhood, the Abbot Morwin, and see them discussing Alfred’s strange inhumanity, his fey appearance, and his lack of aging, in a theological context. While full of information, this opening chapter is also incredibly dry, and the characters are relatively absent – Alfred’s frustration is there, but there’s minimal other character.

Compare this with the rest of the book; everyone in Isle of Glass, from the minor characters like Kilhwch and Joscelin to more central figures such as Thea, Jehan or Richard Couer de Lion, has been written in such a way as to be human and to have meaningful motivations; however much we might despise their actions, it is clear Tarr, and the reader, must have sympathy for them too. Every character is portrayed as having an internal life, and a believable one; they’re all characters we want to know more about and spend more time with, even the ones we dislike. This is especially important given the diversity Tarr includes in Isle of Glass; while there is a paucity of female characters, including in the background, one of the key characters is a Greek Orthodox woman, and a number of important characters are gay. They’re presented without it being ever explicitly stated in a modern way, and through the appropriate lens of the time; including a theological underpinning to all the characters. This is one of the most interesting, and subtle, features of the novel; Tarr avoids the modern attitude to religion of it being an add-on, and renders it as the totalising worldview that is in fact the case.

Another scar on that first facet is what actually happens in it. Although Morwin and Alfred have a conversation that gives us vital information and sets up the rest of the novel in some ways, nothing actually takes place in it; and the ways it sets up later events are simply establishing of the baseline of the novel and of Alfred’s character, rather than doing any serious foreshadowing. Indeed, when Isle of Glass applies a ring structure, it isn’t with anything in the first chapter, but in later early chapters, as if Tarr doesn’t want to recall this first chapter.

Otherwise, Isle of Glass is an incredibly compact novel; while there’s naturally changes of pace in the novel, and Tarr handles them very well and matches them to her plot excellently. This is, in some ways, a very typical fantasy bildungsroman; Alfred has to leave the monastery and go to court, and en route he discovers who he is and begins to come into himself. Furthermore, Tarr makes it an incomplete bildungsroman; there is a theme in the novel of continuous self-discovery and change, and the various bildungsroman plots in the novel (such as Jehan’s) allow for multiple explorations of that.

There is also a larger, less personal, more epic plot of international politics and diplomatic relations; Tarr humanises that, by centring nations into kings – a writing technique that also reflects ideas of the time: monarchs as embodiments of nations. Isle of Glass avoids the obvious cliches of a novel set in the reign of Richard I, not pretending he loved England or acting as a kind of Robin Hood fanfic valourising Richard as an ideal human being. It’s more subtle than that, and more historically honest; based on strong research and an interest in history, Tarr manages to create a plot in the edges of the historical record that remains accurate even with the addition of the fantastical and fictional elements that comprise Isle of Glass.

In the end then, that first facet the reader encounters in Isle of Glass is incredibly misleading as to what Tarr has lined up for after it. I absolutely second Kari Sperring’s recommendation of this book, and this series.


1 Comment

  1. Paul Weimer says:

    Been a while since I read it, I don’t remember the first chapter being discordant with the rest of the novel.

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