I’m going to explain the premise, pitch, and demographics of The White Raven by Diana Paxson first so you know whether or not you’re interested and then give you the recipe-blog ramble afterward, so that you aren’t sitting there for the first minute of reading, wondering where this is all going. The White Raven is a Dark Ages fantasy novel that’s heavy on the intimate relationships between characters and the politics between tiny states and relatively light on the actual magic. (You could almost call the magical elements quasi pagan inspie instead of ordinary fantasy, as they reflect the setting’s religious traditions.) The romantic end-game is a hunky older King Woobie archetype, which was my main draw, so if you’re into grizzled sad powerful charistmatic men who need comforting, I can recommend this one with some caveats. They are later down in the review and please do not take them lightly.
The main character is Branwen, the daughter of an Irish king’s brother. Unfortunately, she happens to be a daughter by a British captive he’d brought over, so instead of being raised as a princess, she grows up beside her actual-princess cousin, Esseilte (this book’s version of how to spell the name I grew up calling Isolde) as both a sister and a servant at the same time. The cousins are extremely close and devoted and the storms they weather together comprise a good portion of the book’s emotional upheaval.
I purposely sought this book out because for years I’ve been fascinated by a variation in the Tristan myth in which Isolde begs her handmaiden (i.e. Branwen) to take her place in the king’s bed on her wedding night so he won’t discover that his nephew Tristan has already helped her get her PiV badge. (Please note that in real life it’s probably not so easy to tell if someone has their badge or not!) Since my huuuuge opera crush regularly plays this particular king, it was a hop-skip-and-a-jump over to dreaming about what if Branwen felt like I do, i.e. what if became infatuated with the king based on his personal magnetism and also from her experience with him that one night. So I went to the Goodreads list for Tristan retellings and looked for any of them that had Branwen/Mark as a canon ‘ship.
Well, this is EXACTLY the Branwen/Mark relationship as I would have written it. From the moment she first sees him, she’s riveted–but not in a cheesy way, not like gold confetti fell from heaven, just in a way that makes her later reaction to that wedding night totally plausible. The wedding night incorporated a magical rite that made her literally the queen in a way that the legal queen wasn’t because Mark shared that intimate moment with Branwen, not Esseilte, and I loved that detail. And eventually they do wind up together, after the hardship and loss and grief of the regular Tristan plot that’s been told in a dozen other books and operas and legends. In between, though, Branwen nurses a deep, steady love for him while also maintaining her love for Esseilte through all of their relationships’s adult transformations and trials.
I’ve been around Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde since I was a teenager but this book was the first time I ever truly cared about the actual character of Tristan (or Drustan, as Paxson calls him.) Since there’s space for it within the sweeping epic length of an Eighties Fantasy Novel, we’re right there from the very beginning watching Branwen’s father stab Tristan with a poisoned blade as he dies by Tristan’s hand, we’re there watching him insinuate his way into Esseilte’s life so she can heal that poison, and for all the other bits that Wagnerians only get to hear about in long drawn-out flashbacks via aria.
The tone for the most part is pretty serious except for a moment halfway through the book on that fateful wedding night, when Branwen’s narration suddenly gives us “I felt my eyes widen, realizing that there was more than one reason they called Marc’h the Horse King.” Really? REALLY? I mean, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if not for the narrator’s utter earnestness until that moment.
As far as the rest of the book, I was scared on the first few pages because there was an overwhelming amount of Irish proper names without giving me time to figure out what they all referred to, but that died away pretty quickly and for most of the text, the focus is on the interaction between two to four characters at a time and the associated emotions and relationships. I couldn’t always follow the Dark Ages political landscape, but it didn’t really interfere with my appreciation of the main plot, i.e. the tragic connection between Tristan and Isolde (who in case you didn’t know got that way because of a potion they took accidentally) and the way it affects Mark and Branwen, both of whom love them dearly.
I loved every detail of Branwen’s love for Mark. When he’s away fighting in Gaul, for example…
“They are only moths,” came Drustan’s quiet voice. “We know that summer is almost done when the silver moths come home from Gaul.”
From Gaul, I thought, like the king… I straightened then, letting the moths spiral around me. Did you see him, my sisters, did the wind that bore you here also fill his sails?
But we’ve got to talk about the trigger warnings. Toward the end of the book, when Mark is absent again, Branwen gets manipulated into an abusive relationship with a man called Keihirdyn. You’ll have ample warning to tread lightly in this chapter because it’s labeled with his name. He sexually assaults her and then either manipulates her into thinking she wants more or she genuinely wants more physically but then feels gross about it emotionally. In either case she goes along with the relationship out of emotional exhaustion more than anything else, beating herself up about enjoying the physical component, until finally her anger at the situation propels her to finally drive the plot forward, since she partially blames Drustan and Esseilte for his behavior. And he does die — at Mark’s sword, which I found cathartic.
Here’s the thing. I hate that she ends up physically “liking” it. That’s a disgusting trope. There’s a nuance to this, though, that reminds me that it could perhaps be personal, and that many people have conflicting feelings about their abusers. It’s possible that it might resonate with people who have survived similar events. Personally, I’m seriously considering ripping those few pages out of the book since I loved the rest of it so much. It’s completely legitimate if the inclusion of this trope makes you nope out on the entire book. I do, however, want to make it easier for people who do want to read the book to do so without this scene ruining it, if that’s something you feel would help you.
The book is dominated by a woman’s love for the cousin she regards as a sister, and how their relationship changes over the course of half a decade as she ultimately loses her to her tragic destiny. How sweet that at least in this version, her love for Mark and the country he accidentally made her queen of without even knowing it can give her new joys once Isolde is gone.
Additional warning for some typical epic-high-fantasy type violence including death and morbid magic (hello, talking severed head! Not at all nice to meet you) and for a brief scene in which Branwen wakes up next to some random nameless dude because she wanted the king really badly and was lonely.