I’ve gone back and forth on this text quite a bit, unsure how generous I’m willing to be. The facts are these: Judith Tarr’s prose is better than expected, the story flows well, and the pacing is great, but on the other hand, this is not a book that beyond its style really seems to have a lot to do. The Isle of Glass is the kind of novel that readers will finish with a nod and a shrug rather than a smile or tears.
The plot is scanty and rather unambitious. Alfred, or “Alf,” the protagonist, is one of the Fair Folk raised as a monk, which of course means that he’s righteous, sheltered, and troubled by his heritage. He’s the handsome naïf trope played straight as an arrow. One day, a wounded knight of the Fairies arrives with a mission to prevent a war, and the unassuming Alf is drafted as messenger and king-manipulator supreme, leaving his quiet abbey together with his faithful if overprotective comrade Jehan (who’s basically a loyal mastiff in human form). As the plot involves England in the middle ages, the king naturally has to be Richard the Lion-heart, in the bloodthirsty yet emotionally vulnerable role he always seems to play when conjured by romantic fantasy authors. Along the way to play on the brutal, warmongering king’s deep-seated need to be loved, Alf encounters Althea, a Fairy woman with an aversion to clothes and (apparently) a priest fetish. Together, this group of individuals has to find a way to work past their conflicting ambitions and save three countries.
As I said, the plot is really not terribly complex, and there are times when it doesn’t seem to hold together that well. However, The Isle of Glass skates over these issues with admirable panache, so that it often takes a second thought to realize that this or that twist felt a little too convenient. Indeed, Tarr proves fairly adept at seducing the reader away from noticing or caring about the narrative’s issues. If the characters aren’t especially deep, they’re at least consistent. The dialogue isn’t exactly quotable but it can often be rather clever nonetheless, and there are scenes of genuine emotion and depth (even if those scenes are predicated on rather simple character designs and are thus to some extent predictable).
In fact, I would have to say that overall I enjoyed The Isle of Glass. It was tight enough that I never got bored, and I suspect that had I not read so many books with similar themes and plot, I might have enjoyed it more. What stops me in my tracks on the way to an unabashedly thumbs-up review is the growing sensation that this is the popcorn movie of romantic fantasy. I certainly appreciated it while I was reading it. It was reasonably exciting and well-written, so I had fun. Now that it’s over, however, I’m honestly having trouble figuring out what the point to it all was, or really if there was any point at all aside from being diverting. Tarr made the exact steps I expected her to, following the basic plot arcs associated with her tropes with little or no deviation. For all its polished feel, the story is inescapably formulaic. The naïf grows up. The lonely king learns to love. The wild girl is forced to respect strictures and principles. The loyal sidekick… gets to bark prettily and make a grand show of his eventual independence.
A derivative novel is not necessarily a bad novel if it’s done well, and The Isle of Glass fortunately has been done well. On the other hand, lacking ingenuity and direction to claim as solely its own, the story can’t be as memorable or as affecting as it might wish to be. Judith Tarr has written a book worth reading, but I wouldn’t be in any rush to put it at the top of the reading list.