When she was little, Lady Branwen’s life was blown apart when her parents were murdered by Kernyv raiders. The king and queen took her in and raised her as one of their own. Now at nineteen, she a lady-in-waiting to her cousin Princess Eseult. Essy is fiesty yet fragile, a girl determined to live a life she chooses even if it means disregarding all her responsibilities. Branny, on the other hand, is content to be in her cousin’s shadow, but beneath her wallflower attitude is a fire waiting to be lit. The boy with the match is Tristan, a Kernyvman who washes up on Iveriu’s shore. After Branwen saves his life, the truth of his past comes out and threatens the passion welling up between them.
For years, longer than anyone can remember, Kernyv and Iveriu have been enemies, but Tristan’s arrival and the message he brings from his king offer a chance at peace. Yet when Essy insists on marrying for love rather than for political control, as is her duty as princess, the fate of two nations is put at risk. All the while, ancient magic calls to Branny, pushing her to discover the depth and breadth of her gods-given abilities. The gods have a vested interest in her and her true love, but it may not be for the reason she thinks. As a healer and liaison between humans and the Land, Branwen is destined to heal anything and everything from people to the monarchy to her own damaged heart. If Branwen can’t get Essy to play her part—and keep Tristan alive long enough to make it back to Kernyv—all hope is lost.
Now, I love a good romance as much as the next person, but my preferences lean toward the enemies to friends to lovers trope more than insta love. But the story of Tristan and Iseult is nothing if not the epitome of insta love, so of course Sweet Black Waves would be as well. For me, where the whole love at first sight thing falls apart is that it’s usually based on physical attraction, and the relationship part where they get to know each other on a deeper level never really happens. They’re too caught up with swooning and getting lost in each others’ eyes to worry about whether or not they can build a successful, long term relationship. Take away the fiery desire and not much is left. All of which makes it hard for me to buy into Tristan and Branwen’s romance in the first place and therefore makes the inevitable obstacles less devastating. None of this is Pérez’s fault, of course. The original story offers only so much leeway, and without insta love she’d have to spend way too much time setting up Tristan and Branwen and not enough keeping them apart.
But once I turned off my grumpy old lady brain and remembered how to feel again, all those gripes washed away. For two hot, young people suddenly falling truly, madly, deeply in love with each other, Branwen and Tristan’s romance is one for the ages. The pair are both wise beyond their years, too clever by half, and self-sacrificing to a fault. Their interactions are hands down the best part of the novel.
The other characters are less developed. Even Essy, as important as she is, is fairly two-dimensional. King Óengus is a non-entity and appears so infrequently I kept forgetting he existed. Queen Eseult is so noble and enigmatic that it’s hard to prise out a personality. Keane is interesting until he stagnates into a trope. And the others are hardly more than people who do things to push the plot forward. Some I suspect will get more shading in future entries, but others who badly need some development don’t survive long enough to get it.
Most of dramatic conflict revolves around Branwen. She impulsively makes some major decisions that have vast and dangerous repercussions then must do everything in her power to keep things from getting worse. Spoilers: she doesn’t and they do. Branwen could also solve a lot of her problems if she just talked to Tristan. She keeps a preposterous amount of secrets, many for reasons I’m still a little fuzzy on. But that’s also true to her personality. As a lady’s maid, she’s used to maneuvering in the background while others steal the limelight. Her whole life is dedicated to securing the future of Iveriu by protecting Princess Eseult, more so when the magic in her blood manifests itself. Sometimes defending the crown requires a lie or two. Essy may not like it, but ultimately Branny’s concerns are bigger than her cousin’s mercurial moods.
As much as this story is based on the many iterations of the Celtic legend turned Anglo-Norman story, you don’t need to know any of it to understand Pérez’s version. It’s a loose interpretation, with Branwen taking some of Iseult’s roles from the legends. And since Sweet Black Waves is only the first in a trilogy, most of the action Celtic nerds are expecting has yet to happen. Speaking of which, we have to talk about that cliffhanger. Pérez picked the worst/best place to end her novel. It’s like she set off an explosion and ended the book right when the bomb goes off. I was expecting the scene itself to be a gut-punch, but then to have it just stop was hard to take. In a good way. I’m a fan of abrupt endings, so it worked for me. Just be prepared.
Sweet Black Waves is a beautiful if overstuffed novel. Kristina Pérez’s writing is evocative and immersive. She pulls you into the medieval British Isles with lush, florid prose and surrounds you in a sweeping romance. Pérez deftly tightens the screws until it’s almost too much, forcing her characters into heartbreaking circumstances with no good options. It’s not a perfect novel, and not everything she attempts is successful, but on the whole it’s inventive and intriguing. Bring on the sequel!
Sweet Black Waves is available from Macmillan Books.
Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and QWoC all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.