There’s something especially haunting and stunning about reading Kristina Perez’s Sweet Black Waves series. Perhaps it’s because the original legend in which it finds its bearings– Tristan and Iseult— is a tragedy, and you anticipate that dark, destructive energy right down to your bones. Perhaps it’s because we see Branwen become the main character, giving her light and agency that gets you invested in her side of the story, even as life crumbles around her. Perhaps it’s because of the added mystery and magic that escalate the world to new levels. Personally, I vote all of the above!
Branwen’s best of intentions have landed her in a living hell: Unwittingly betrayed by her first love, obligated to serve her best friend (and future queen) who only tepidly shows remorse for her part in crushing Branwen’s dreams, and stuck in a foreign kingdom where her gifts are more scandalous than ever. There’s only one thing that remains: Peace between Iveriu and Kernyv. Branwen will do anything to convince the Kernyv people of Iveriu’s commitment to peace, even as Tristan and Eseult struggle under the spell of The Loving Cup. To save her people and her land, Branwen will sacrifice the very core of her existence… but will it be enough?
Perez starts out pretty fresh in this novel, despite it being a sequel. There’s a new setting, a new culture, new politics to consider, and given their journey, Branwen, Tristan, and Eseult are the only returning characters from book one. Still, I was perhaps even more intrigued this time around than I was with the first novel! The author has a talent for multi-faceted storytelling: She builds the world as she introduces the new characters and lays out fresh conflicts. The book is nearly 500 pages, but every scene has a worthy place.
The people of Kernyv really helped build Branwen’s story this time around. I especially loved King Marc, who could have easily been a brutish scapegoat to ease the validity of Tristan and Eseult’s relationship, but is instead a worthy king with complex layers who’s just doing the best he can. In close second is Ruan, a rival to his cousin Tristan who takes immediate interest in Branwen, much to the conflicted ex-hero’s chagrin. I also loved Andred, Branwen’s young accomplice with strong Kernyv ties and a heart of gold. Even the troublesome characters, like Countess Kensa and Seer Casek, had strong development that drove their actions well.
Above all, I’m Team Branwen. Kristina Perez does in this book what Marie Lu wanted to do in The Young Elites: Crafts a believable protagonist who, through a heart-wrenching mixture of bad luck, secrets, naïveté, sacrifice, and magic, morphs into an antagonist. The transition feels justified, not forced, and it is so very compelling. Mind you, I don’t know how much of the antagonist Branwen will be in the final book, Bright Raven Skies, but the knife’s edge battle between the dark and the light within her is what makes her so fascinating, and it definitely feels like she’s falling to the former.
My one issue with the novel was Branwen’s isolation. The character spends a lot of time alone in her secrets, sacrificing all and getting little in return. That feeling does ease a bit at certain points in the novel as Branwen makes new connections, but this is book two in a series, so as you’d expect, things only get harder for her in the long run. It’s engrossing– part soap opera, part political chess game– but sometimes, you just want your MC to be able to have a good things and keep them.
As is the case with all retellings, Perez has all the power to mold the story as she sees fit. I’m dying to see how she rounds out this trilogy in the final book. I’m expecting a massive book hangover from a massive hurricane of feels and I. cannot. wait!
RATING: 4.75 OUT OF 5 STARS
Branwen has a secret powerful enough to destroy two kingdoms.
Her ancient magic led to a terrible betrayal by both her best friend, the princess Essy, and her first love, Tristan. Now this same magic is changing Branwen. Adrift in a rival court, Branwen must hide the truth from the enemy king by protecting the lovers who broke her heart—and finds herself considering a darker path.
Not everyone wants the alliance with Branwen’s kingdom to succeed—peace is balanced on a knife’s edge, and her only chance may be to embrace the darkness within…