Disclosure: I obtained the paperback edition of this book at a Friends of the Library sale. I had originally read it approximately 30 years ago. I do not know the author beyond mutual following on Twitter; we chat online there but have never met. I have never discussed this book or any of her others with her. I am an author of historical and contemporary romance novels.
Okay, that's out of the way. I'm so glad I finished this, because I was beginning to think I would never finish anything!
The Isle of Glass is the first book in a trilogy. I'll be starting the second book, The Golden Horn, probably tonight.
The main character is Brother Alfred, a monk/priest at the Abbey of St. Ruan in a semi-mythical England (Anglia) of the late twelfth century. (Tarr has a PhD in Medieval Studies from Yale University.) Unlike his fellow monks who are all quite human, Brother Alf is apparently one of the Fair Folk, an elf. Though he is nearly 70 years old, he hasn't physically aged beyond his late teens or early twenties. He has some elven magic skills, but he does his best not to use them. He is more than just ashamed of his otherness; he believes it means he has no soul.
The complexity of Alf's character is the outstanding strength of this novel. I actually lost track of the plot at times and had to set the book aside to figure out exactly what was going on and who the different characters were. Tarr provides no map or dramatis personae to tell the players and teams, and though I sorted them out by the latter part of the story, I reached the end with a few details not quite clear.
If Richard Lionheart is King of Anglia/England, and Anglia lies between Gwynedd/Wales? and Rhiyana, where exactly is Rhiyana? It's not France, because Paris is mentioned as a place where Alfred studied. I'm not even sure Rhiyana is a physical place, though Gwydion is its physical elvenking.
Alf would just as soon stay in the safe confines of his Abbey for the rest of his unnaturally long life - even forever, if it came to that - but worldly politics sends him out on an errand to try to avoid a war. Once out in the world, he also becomes prey in the ecclesiastical wars of rival monkish orders where priests vie for secular power. But he also becomes prey of another kind, as both mortals and Fair Folk seek romantic, or at least sexual, engagements with him. Part of that issue is resolved in this first volume of the trilogy, but there is much more challenge to come for Alf as the saga continues.
That's where I really pulled off the half star from the rating.
I said in a previous status report that this work reminded me in some ways of Jennifer Roberson's Sword series, which was begun just about the same time as Tarr's - mid- to late 1980s. But Roberson's first volume, Sword Dancer, ended cleanly so that it could if necessary stand alone. There was, of course, a sequel and then several more, but Sword Dancer was complete.
In contrast, The Isle of Glass ended with the lead-in to the next volume, The Golden Horn, very clear. Unfortunately, I felt it was contrived, in a kind of, "Oh, yes, we've wound up this dilemma so neatly that we ought to go on and find some more adventures!"
This same problem, I felt, plagued William Morris's The Well at the World's End. There just wasn't enough drama, enough motivation from outside the character's existence to propel the story. The Isle of Glass had all that drama and motivation at the beginning but the lead-in to the next volume doesn't, at least not yet. Maybe the opening will be stronger, but we'll see.
Tarr's writing is splendid, however, but those of us who have been conditioned by years of POV conventions in romance may have some difficulty dealing with multiple viewpoints that shift on a dime. It doesn't bother me at all, because I began reading long before the strictures went into place, but others should be forewarned. Still, she evokes the wintry landscape and the stark medieval interiors with consummate skill.
The other similarity between Tarr and Roberson is that they employ male main characters. And though there's virtually no similarity between Brother Alf and Tiger, the sword dancer, it's very intriguing to me to read how the two authors get into the mind of the "other" gender.