Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Pérez
Title: Sweet Black Waves
Author: Kristina Pérez
Genre: YA Fantasy
Topics: Medieval retellings, Fate, Love, Magic
Triggers: Some blood and violence
Publishing Year: 2018
Format Read: Hardcover
My Rating: 3.5/5
I first heard about this book went it was recommended by Dhonielle Clayton during the Belles and Brujas tour. When I looked it up and found out that Sweet Black Waves is a YA retelling of the tale of Tristan and Iseult told from the perspective of Iseult’s lady-in-waiting, cousin and best friend Branwen and set in a magical version of Ireland. I immediately put it on hold at my library and started reading it as soon as it came in. Confession: I am a bit of a nerd for Arthurian and medieval stories and retellings so I was particularly excited for this book. Interestingly enough I think I would have enjoyed reading the book more without knowing the myth this books was based on (since you know the twist at the end already) but even then I highly enjoyed Pérez’s take on the classic story. It takes a classic tale retold countless times and imbues it with a fresh feminist take with a dash of magic.
Summary: As best friend and lady-in-waiting to the princess, Branwen is guided by two principles: devotion to her homeland and hatred for the raiders who killed her parents. When she unknowingly saves the life of her enemy, he awakens her ancient healing magic and opens her heart. Branwen begins to dream of peace, but the princess she serves is not so easily convinced. Fighting for what's right, even as her powers grow beyond her control, will set Branwen against both her best friend and the only man she's ever loved.
There is so here for fans or medieval fantasy and awesome female characters with magic powers but there are two aspects of this story that I particularly loved and that make it stand out from the many medieval retellings out there: The first is the world building. Perez has a P.h.D. in medieval literature from Oxford and it shows. The the attention to detail to the names, places and setting come together to create an immersive and authentic world which seamlessly blends with the magical elements that Pérez introduces. Pérezeven includes a glossary and an explanation on the sources that she consulted when constructing her world. None of this however, bogs down the story or makes it inaccessible at any point in the narrative.
We follow roughly two story arcs. One is centered around Branwen (or Branny) and begins when she discovers Tantris a wounded bard from the enemy kingdom to Branwen’s homeland washed up on shore. She hides Tantris nursing him back to health and eventually falling in love with him. Surprise! It turns out that Tantris, is in fact Tristan and is one of the champions who has come to fight for Princess Eseult’s (or Essy’s) and Branwen’s cousin hand in marriage to his Uncle and King in a tournament arrange by Essy’s father. This arranged marriage could cement peace and bring an end to a long and bloody war that has cause many casualties on both sides. Essy however is not happy about an arranged marriage and does her best to throw a wrench in this plan.
All the while Branny is also coming to discover her ancient powers as a healer under the wing of her Aunt, Queen Eseult. We see Branny develop from a skeptic in the ‘Old Ways’ to a powerful healer with pretty bad-ass powers. As political and personal tensions rise, Branny increasingly relies on her new magic skills to eliminate the problems she encounters as she works towards forging peace between the two kingdoms, which as we know is not going to go wrong or cause problems at all.
Where the book absolutely shines and I found myself unable to put the book down where the scenes between Queen Esuelt and Branwen. The relationship between the women in this book are so excellent and made me squee with Bechdelian joy. Queen Eseult is Branny's aunt and has acted as a surrogate mother figure after Branny was orphaned in a raid. Their relationship is one of tutelage, respect, and love and stand out in a genre that at times overlooks such relationships among women.
Before we reach the twist and cliffhangery end (this is the first book of a trilogy after all) we are treated to some spectacular and memorable scenes which include some pretty awesome magic rituals, an epic battle aboard and ship a heart-pounding tournament of knights. Basically this is everything that my Merlin-loving 14-year-old self could want. You can be sure I'll pick up the next book to find out want happens next.
Read if you like:
- The BBC series Merlin (especially Morgana)
- Medical retellings
- Awesome witch powers