Thomas the Rhymer is a character who exists in ballads and folklore. He is taken by the Queen of the Elves to Elfinland and lives there for seven years.
Kushner has taken the traditional tale and given it her own twist and it works really well.
I loved this novel for many reasons. Firstly, I love the use of language. The language is not obviously archaic, nor is in rhyme or anything like that. Yet, there is a flavour to it that feels slightly apart from everyday English and part of a folk tale - without me being able to put a finger on how the writer has achieved this.
Secondly, I love the old couple who give Thomas shelter from the storm at the start of the novel. They are very much individual characters and very believable. They have no children of their own, and Thomas develops the habit of dropping by at irregular intervals, using them as a stable point in his wandering life. They welcome him, give him his share of the work to do, listen to his songs and stories and give him affection that has no conditions set upon it. (for a travelling harpist/singer, life is lived on the edge - people always want his music, but the rich in no way consider him an equal) They aren't fooled by his tall stories (Thomas has a habit of exaggerating his importance), nor do they fail to be aware of his womanising habits, but they also see his strengths.
Thirdly, Thomas himself is an engaging character. He has his faults, but like the old couple, you come to see his better side as well.
Thomas comes to love a girl who lives not far from the old couple, but when offered the chance of sex with an elven queen, Thomas hesitates not. She takes him back with her and a curious relationship develops.
This is Elfinland the way I feel it should be (I was reminded a little of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell - though, of course, Thomas is the older book). Time is out of joint and humans can become very tired and drained. It can be beautiful and yet distorted. Nothing is as it seems and elven politics are complex and superficial all at once.
Kushner weaves another Child ballad into her narrative and it's likely that when you reach the end of the book you will be hitting You Tube to listen to Martin Carthy singing the song that Thomas writes in the book after encountering a human ghost in Elfinland.
Of course, being the teller of tall stories that he is, Thomas has real trouble getting anyone to believe him when he finally returns to human lands. He also has a gift from the Queen that is a bit of a mixed blessing...
This is a book that I will definitely be reading again.