Branwen’s dreams of granting Iveriu safety, Eseult happiness and Tristan her heart are in tatters. She is determined to right her mistakes – but with the local priests and the new King’s Champion watching her every move, the slightest mis-step could end in disaster…
One of the things I love about Subjective Chaos is that it forces me to read – and to finish – books I might otherwise dismiss. Wild Savage Stars continues Kristina Pérez’s YA reimagining of the tragic romance of Tristan and Iseult. It had to overcome the hurdle that I basically hated series starter Sweet Black Waves, but it rose to the occasion, introducing characters I actually cared about in a new court setting that fostered political as well as personal conflict.
Who would have thought I’d like the Kernyveu so much more than the Iveriu? King Marc – my new fave – is a fundamentally decent man who might well have won Essie’s heart if Branwen hadn’t meddled, and whose past threatens Branwen’s growing respect for him. Ruan, his new Champion, is a rakish rogue with an eye for secrets who is more interesting than Tristan in every way (although I’d have enjoyed him even more if it had been less obvious where his heart truly lay). Dowager Queen Verica is a delight, weighing in on political and patriarchal nonsense. In general, the Kernyveu court is better developed than its Iveriu counterpart, with Pérez sketching in personalities and agendas at play that include royal ambitions, economic stability and religious fervour to add complexity and context. Where Iveriu felt hand-waved at best, Kernyv springs to life as a house of cards, domestically fragile in spite of its foreign reputation as a piratical powerhouse.
Narratively, Wild Savage Stars succeeded for me by centering the tragedy of Branwen and Eseult over the magically-propelled star-crossed romance(s). Their relationship – damaged by the conflict between daydreams and duty – is threatened by a rising tide of guilt, bitterness and rage. Essie remains incredibly volatile, but I finally found some sympathy for her as Wild Savage Stars progressed. Essie is helplessly attracted to Tristan through no fault of her own and while she tries to step up to her new responsibilities as Kernyv’s Queen, she’s young, isolated and full of self-doubt. She desperately needs an anchor, but Branwen can no longer bear to be her confidante. One of the most touching scenes is a brief reconciliation between the two; but Branwen’s loyalties – more firmly with Iveriu than with Eseult – are ever a wedge between them.
Branwen steps up into the role of manipulative sorceress, determined to sacrifice whatever – and whoever – it takes to secure peace. Her growing reputation as a healer and her influence with King Marc put her in conflict with the patriarchal cult of the Horned One, giving Pérez an opening to examine her world – including Branwen’s actions – through a feminist lens. While I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the subplot of Eseult’s First Night, I appreciated how Pérez resolved it. I also liked that the narrative acknowledges that Branwen’s love potion stole Essie’s (and Tristan’s) freedom to consent, contrasting it with her freedom to choose how to call the shots with Ruan. I can’t help but reflect that our protagonist could easily be recast as the villain were someone else narrating, and as her magical powers grow ever darker, I’m curious as to where Branwen’s path will lead.
While I won’t be throwing my weight behind this trilogy for Best Series, Wild Savage Stars did enough to convince me that I’d like to see how Kristina Pérez plays out the end-game.