Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Book: Patricia McKillip – The Riddle-Master Trilogy

Comprising of:
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)
Heir of Sea and Fire (1977)
Harpist in the Wind (1979)

In the seventies, two writers, Patricia McKillip and Stephen Donaldson, had a close friendship and both set out to write their own fantasy epic. Donaldson published the first book of his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and in the same year, McKillip published The Riddle-Master of Hed. I suppose the two would make a nice pair on your shelf.
Both authors claim to be inspired by Tolkien. But although McKillip admits so, her trilogy is remarkably original. Far more so than piles of epics that do not make such confessions. And although there is now available an excellent omnibus of all three parts, her story stays quite unread.

On with the review. McKillip’s writing is not just solid, but also lush and dreamy. At times quite descriptive, but always beautiful:

"The wind sped past like wild horses, pouring through empty rooms, thundering down the street to spiral the tower and moan through its secret chamber."

The book can be reread just for the richness of her writing. But let’s not forget her characters. Almost all of them are human. There are no Elves of Dwarves or Dragons in this epic. Only wizards and things-I-will-not-spoil-for-you. They have a very realistic feel about them. Especially in the second half of the story, the main characters are supposed to be romantically involved, but they quibble and whine and on the whole really get to know each other. Also the character Deth is one of the most interesting characters in the history of the fantasy genre.
The worldbuilding is very rich. During the story, McKillip makes the reader familiar with its interesting past in moments of creative brilliance. Also her idea of a magical land-rule remains fresh throughout the books and the riddle-society as an alternative to science or an historical institute feels utterly believable. And the story itself is epic alright. Battling armies, ancient powers, world-rule.

Are there no negative comments to make? Well, I didn’t like her use of names. Deth, Yrth, Hel, Hed. It sounds too shallow to me.

1 comment:

  1. The Riddlemaster trilogy is about two classes better than Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In LOTR it is all black and white - you have the bad guys who do bad deeds because they are bad so you have to overcome them. Epic but painfully weak. In Riddlemaster everyone has a reason for what they do - even if you are not aware till the end what that reason might be. That is simply brilliant. It is maybe the only book that I've read where I can find no contradiction, no lame accident/surprise because everything has a reason and comes from somewhere.