It's a pity that modern generic classification dictates that Marissa Ames's delightful novel, MINSTREL: A BALLAD OF LIES, DECEIT, AND REDEMPTION, should be labeled a `fantasy.' It is, of course, in the broadest sense, but so is every other work of fiction. The land of Tir Athair, where MINSTREL is set, is a Celtic-flavored country that is neither Britain nor Ireland, and the period of the story borrows elements from the middle ages and the Renaissance, but the imaginary setting is where the elements of a `fantasy' (in the modern sense) end. The cover states that this is the "First Book of Tir Athair", so it's certainly possible that wizards, trolls, dragons, fairies, and the like will turn up in some corner of the world Ames has created at some future date, but they make no appearance in this story. They are not needed, and they are not missed.
What MINSTREL actually is, is a Romance, in the old sense of the term. Ames's story owes more to the medieval epics of Chrétien de Troyes and the Renaissance novellas of Giovanni Boccaccio than to Tolkien and his endless stream of literary progeny. Where Ames seems to draw her main inspiration, as the novel's title would suggest, is from the lais and ballads of the troubadours on whom she based her protagonist. MINSTREL contains all the elements you could wish from a story sung at a fireside by an itinerant bard; a bad king and his good brother, a beautiful and mysterious woman with a secret, an honorable soldier caught between his duty and his conscience, noble hordes of the untamed savage wild, court intrigue, peasant revolts, sea-chases, sword fights, betrayals, daring rescues, and love both requited and un--but instead of presenting these events from the point of view of the standard prince or knight, Ames shows us everything through the eyes of the court musician, who starts off as a fly on the wall, observing the deeds of the great from behind his lute, seemingly unnoticed, and then is slowly drawn into the increasingly dangerous affairs of State.
Ames's world is engaging. Her prose is clear and lovely. She does not shy away from the brutalities of a pre-modern world, but she handles some of the most potentially upsetting elements of the story (particularly those dealing with torture and rape) with a very light touch and a lot of restraint. Her particular skill is characterization. Working with figures that could easily play as simple archetypes (or their less noble kindred, clichés) Ames instead provides a cast of fully-realized, flawed, and relatable people. Her deftness at drawing characters makes it impossible to dislike anyone that she allows the reader to get to know.
An unlikely hero becomes the center of royal dispute and intrigue in Marissa Ame’s exciting tale, Minstrel. When Liam and his band of theatrical brothers arrive in the city of Cynegil, they have only the desire to make enough money to buy food and a place to lay their head. But when they see the signs that the city is in mourning they have a difficult decision to make. Do they ignore their empty bellies and move on in the hopes of finding sustenance someplace else, or do they disregard the rules against merriment in a time of mourning and entertain people? The needs of nourishment require them to go against the rules, and this decision lands them in the hands of the new king Riordan’s court. Riordan rules the country in excess, throwing parties and feasts, ignoring the emptying larders and purses of the country. Shamus, his twin brother, realizes that it is imperative that someone knows the truth of events and hires Liam to be his personal historian in order to record the happenings of Riordan’s reckless rule. But, can a simple minstrel right the wrongs of an entire kingdom? Will anyone listen to him if he tries? Find out in Marissa Ame’s Minstrel.
It was with much excitement that I downloaded a copy of Minstrel to review. Having previously read Marissa Ames’s short story, Darrion, which is also a story of Tir Athair, I was expecting the same intrigue and excitement in Minstrel that I had come to associate with Ames’s writing. I was certainly not disappointed. The feudal society that Ames has created, the intrigues involved in the opposing twin royal brothers, and the unlikely heroism of the minstrel, Liam, are wonderfully thought out and beautifully crafted. Rather than the lofty idealism that surrounds many fantasy landscapes, there is a grit and grime that is just as enchanting in the city of Cynegil. The world the author has created lives and breathes amongst the pages of her book. I highly recommend Minstrel, and I can’t wait to read her next book, Vassal.