Sweet Black Waves
By Kristina Perez
Published June 5, 2018 by Imprint
I am low key obsessed with the Arthurian legends, so when I heard about a new YA fantasy based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult, I knew I had to read it.
Sweet Black Waves is the first book in a trilogy retelling the legend of the star-crossed lovers. The story is told from the point of view of Branwen, the lady-in-waiting of Princess Eseult of Iveriu. In this version, Branwen is Eseult’s cousin, as their mothers were sisterz. Iveriu is in a constant battle with a country across the sea, Kernyv, and raiders from each country attack the other routinely. Branwen’s parents were killed many years earlier by Kernyvak raiders. Branwen is devoted to the princess.
One day, Branwen finds an injured man named Tantris on the beach, and she saves his life. She’s shocked when she realizes that he is from Kernyv, but Branwen is training to be a healer, and once she saves his life, she feels responsible for him, so she hides him and nurses him back to health. They fall in love, but Branwen knows there can never be a future between her and an enemy of her people, and they part. He returns a few weeks later, presenting himself at her uncle the king’s court as Prince Tristan of Kernyv. He has come to take part in a tournament to win the hand of Princess Eseult on behalf of his uncle, King Marc of Kernyv.
The story unfolds much as you would expect from the legend, but it’s made interesting and new by being told through Branwen’s eyes. She’s an interesting character. She has every reason to hate the Kernyv people, but she also hopes desperately for a lasting peace, and she’s willing to do anything to make it happen. I liked Branwen very much, and her main fault is that she’s way too nice to the awful Eseult. Eseult is basically a spoiled brat, who’s not cut out to be queen. Branwen, on the other hand, is smart and competent, and she shows remarkable talent in her training as a healer. She’s very serious, which makes sense given that she was orphaned at a young age, and has devoted herself to her healer training.
There is some serious insta-love in this book, but that’s completely true to the source material. People are always falling in love at first sight in Arthurian legends. But the fast-moving romance between Branwen and Tristan meant that for me, I wasn’t terribly invested in their love story. Also, being familiar with the legend, I was expecting tragedy at every turn, so that may have something to do with my lack of investment in the romance. I really liked Branwen, I just didn’t care that much about Tristan. But Branwen’s story stands on its own.
I do think the author really captured the feel of the original legend: Branwen’s life in the castle, the wind-swept shores of Iveriu, and the constant threat of the the invaders all feel very real and work well for the story. It’s very atmospheric. There are a few places where the pace drags a bit, and I do think the middle of the book could have been trimmed a bit, but the last 100 pages are great, and I’m excited to see where the story goes from here.