Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book review: "Riddle-Master" Patricia A. McKillip

I am not really sure how my attention was drawn to "The Riddle-Master of Hed" trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip, but I was under impression of this book being something of a fundamental of fantasy literature, kind of "Lord of the Rings". I actually felt a little embarrassed for not reading it; I consider myself a well-versed in fantasy, and here I was, not even aware of such a classical piece. Media can sometimes be such a seducer, true?

I bought an omnibus edition, called simply "Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy". It contains all three books: "The Riddle-Master of Hed", "The Heir of Sea and Fire" and "Harpist in the Wind". The books start with Morgon, a young ruler of smallest kingdom of the land, island of Hed, full of farmers and famous for its beer. Morgon became a land-heir (ruler of kingdom with special connection to the land) very recently, after the death of his parents a year ago. Before that Morgon was (which is very uncommon for people of Hed) a student of college in Caithnard, greatest place of art of riddling. After they (they being Morgon, and his sister Tristan and brother Eliard) are visited by Deth, a harpist for High One (something of reclusive over-ruler), they learn that Moron won a hand of Raedlerle of An, daughter of a King of a powerful kingdom of An. Morgon decides to take his previously unknown prize, since he met Raedlerle before, while attending college. But while on way there, accompanied by Deth, he gets attacked by mysterious shapechangers and loses his memory. After regaining it, he starts a journey toward High One's mountain planning to ask him about the shapechangers, who are starting to become a real threat. On way there, he meets the others land-rulers and learns about secret behind the stars on his forehead.

Second book brings a radical change in perspective, since it is told from point of Readlerle, a character that was only briefly mentioned in previous book. We follow her as she searches for explanation about Morgons disappearance (first book ends in a cliffhanger, so we don't know anything about Morgon and his fate) and later for Morgon himself, as rumors about him start to fill the land. As searching brings to more distant places, she also starts to find new things about herself, especially her own strange power, which frightens her.

In third book we are back to Morgon's POV. We follow him and Raedlerle as they are first running from, and later fighting, their enemies, who include shapechangers, but other, too. Also, they discover that some of their dead enemies and allies are not as dead as they believed. But the biggest discovery will be about High One...

To me, the books sucked. They were written in the seventies and the author in the introduction clearly states how she was impressed by "The Lord of Rings" so much that it directed to toward writing fantasy. This is clearly in her writing because she really managed to emulate the sense of LotR and still be completely different from it. When I say sense of LotR, I mean about that atmosphere to nobility, a thing that I tend to associate to either older or poorer works. Let's take ASoIaF for example: it is certainly epic, and it contains occasional great nobility, but its prominent characteristic is grittiness; its characters are in no way chivalrous. You won't see that in LotR; people there are either heroes (large or small), noble, courteous and strong, or villains, foul-mouthed and cowardly. For more examples, WoT tends toward that, while MBotF completely inverts it; "Sword of Truth" by Goodking tends to that, but the books are terrible. I am not saying it is bad or it is good; it's just one style and it is just part of book. Anyway, McKillip succeeds in copying this style of LotR, but unfortunately fails in making books as interesting or intense.

There are several things that bothered me. First, I was irritated by characters, Morgon, Readlerle, Lysa... Always taking a easier route would quickly lead to the Dark Side, but I would nice to be that they sometimes do the smart thing instead the perfectly noble thing and clinging to impossible ideals. I mean, it's nice when someone sticks with his believes, but sometimes it is just obvious they will have to make some compromises (except when they are shounen-heroes) so why not do the smart thing and adapt quickly instead of dragging to whole book. E.g. Rand from WoT at first doesn't like One Power, but it obvious that he will be forced to use it. So even though he struggles against it and is reluctant about it, in the end he does accept it as a part of himself and learns to live with it. Secondly, they don't do much in this book; I think that good two thirds of these books consist of traveling. Things do get interesting when they actually start to do something (for example, defense of Lungold), but they are soon interrupted by another trip. Thirdly, I couldn't completely understand McKillip's writing. I don't know if that is because English is not my first language (although I read it more than Croatian, by the way) or she just has such way of writing, but I was often find myself confused by the events. Things do get explained later, but even after reading whole omnibus, I can't say I completely understand what happened. This also happened often with Erikson, but somehow I believe that with him this is intentional; here I believe reason is the lack of skill. This doesn't mean that McKillip is poor writer; even though I am a poor judge for this, I found her writing very beautiful. Also, for a book called "Riddle-Master", full of riddling and people who pride themselves on it, it would be nice to hear at least one riddle...

When I learned that "Harpist in the Wind" won a Hugo award, my opinion of it was something like of a Picasso's painting: experts and people with taste are able to appreciate it and discuss it strengths and details, but most of people would have to take their word for it being a masterpiece. So, "Riddle-Master" can be beautifully written, it can have strong metaphors or pictures, but I don't believe it will be so appreciated by general audience (by this I mean fantasy-literature audience). The fact that is not really omnipresent on web at least partially affirms my opinion. On audience that I think could appreciate this book would be the kids; I would have liked this book when I was 10, when I adored "The Hobbit".

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