Nowadays I can pick up any pop cultural obsession that I want - hey, it’s the internet age and my nerdy disposable income goes a long ways. But when I was a kid, it was almost always hard to find cool stuff.
I ended up reading a whole lot of crap, since I didn’t have as much control over what I could find. In a situation like that, the formative moments are not always the ones you’d want them to be, looking back as a grown-up.
I was persistent enough, though, to find a few gems along the way, like Patricia A. McKillip’s The Riddle-Master of Hed.
That’s the first book in a trilogy, and all three books are memorable. The first book, from the year 1976, was followed by Heir of Sea and Fire a year later, and the saga concluded with Harpist in the Wind in 1979. All three are short, as far as trilogies go—all told, the trio clocks in at under 600 pages. Most epic fantasies take up that much space in a single volume!
In the first book, a young prince of Hed, Morgon, is trying to go about his life as the leader of a small island full of farmers. But he has three stars burned on his forehead, and in a world where an unanswered riddle is easily fatal, no one can answer the question posed by the strange markings.
The first book is an introduction to the world, but also a kind of abstract story. Constant danger surrounds Morgon, but it’s not always clear where it’s coming from or why. That puts us in sympathy with Morgon, since he’s in the process of figuring out what’s going on too.
The Riddle-Master of Hed is atmospheric and furnished with some imaginative magic, but a bit standard, complete with a magical young man growing up. Standard, at least until the ending! The first book concludes with a cliffhanger that frightened the heck out of me as a kid and that I still found quite chilling when I re-read it.
What’s more, instead of bogging down in the second book like most fantasy trilogies do, McKillip uses the cliffhanger of the first book as an opportunity. Heir of Sea and Fire leaves our standard male hero dangling and picks up with a woman named Raederle. She and Morgon are destined to be together, but she’s not really waiting around for her white knight. The second book is mainly about Raederle’s efforts to find Morgon, and then the third book is about their partnership, which is not treated as protagonist and sidekick, but rather a duo of powerful people. Smart stuff, and it makes the trilogy tightly constructed, with two character arcs that then merge to form third. It’s not entirely balanced but it’s much more so than most fantasy stories.
In the introduction to the 1999 omnibus edition, McKillip talks about how Tolkien hit her like a bolt of lightning. But you would hardly know it from this book: on the scale of slavish Tolkien imitations, this one hardly registers. There might be a prophecy and a map, but all else is entirely McKillip’s own marvellous work.
That’s ironic praise, considering what I’m about say next: her prose and plotting have a tendency to the elliptical. Elliptical is a polite way of saying “obscure” for the books that don’t work, and “intriguing” for the ones that do, like The Riddle-Master trilogy. These gaps are artfully done, just like everything in her novels, and they make her books very unique.
All the same, I have to confess that I haven’t kept up with McKillip’s recent books. Her love of the elliptical has only intensified, and I’ve found the plots a little too puzzling for me. If this is your fancy, that’s great. In fact I’m thrilled that there’s a writer out there who isn’t churning out the same fantasy crap. In this particular case, it’s a road I can’t follow.
This article was the first in an informal series: revisiting the books that I read as a kid to see how they hold up. When I think of McKillip, I also think of my younger self’s encounter with Robin McKinley’s duo of books, The Hero and the Crown, the second book I ever bought with my own money, and The Blue Sword, the first book I ever read with a sex scene in it!
See: “I Don’t Remember, I Don’t Recall”