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Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy
Patricia A. McKillip
Ace Books, 578 pages

Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy
Patricia McKillip
Patricia McKillip started writing as a teenager. Her interest in writing fantasy blossomed after reading Lord of the Rings. She is the winner of the World Fantasy Award, and author of many fantasy novels, including The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Riddlemaster of Hed, The Sorceress and the Cygnet, and The Cygnet and the Firebird. Her most recent novels are Winter Rose, The Book of Atrix Wolf and Song for the Basilisk. She lives in Roxbury, New York.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Song for the Basilisk
Patricia McKillip Tribute Site
Newsgroup: Patricia McKillip

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Lela Olszewski

Re-reading books is one of my favourite pleasures. Knowing what will happen frees me to savour the author's use of language, discover hints and foreshadowing that I missed the first time, and ponder a book's changing meanings for me as I grow older. Once in a while there are books that disappoint me, like my shock when I re-read Mary Poppins. Others, like Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, John Crowley's Little Big, or Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy, become part of my story, enriching and providing continuity to a life full of changes.

When I learned that Patricia McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy had been reprinted, I was anxious to revisit a book I remembered enjoying 20 years ago. I wasn't disappointed. The story, the characters, and the writing are all memorable, with a richness that has only improved with time. Some trilogies don't stand up to a straight-through reading, but Riddle-Master certainly does. And, unlike the first time, I didn't have to wait four years from the publication of the first book until the publication of the last one -- a definite advantage in this time of never-ending sagas.

In the first book of the trilogy, The Riddle-Master of Hed, Morgon, the Prince of Hed, leaves his rural island home to claim the bride he inadvertently won as a result of a riddle game with a dead king's ghost. Shipwrecked and attacked, he discovers that unknown powers will stop at nothing to destroy him. As he travels through the kingdoms of the world, he is befriended by many and taught to use his unexpected talents over the earth and the air. Still hunted, he flees to Erlenstar Mountain in hopes that the High One will answer the riddle of his destiny. What he finds there is not what he expects.

The second book, The Heir of Sea and Fire, follows Raederle, Morgon's future bride and a Princess of An, as she searches for Morgon, now presumed dead. She struggles to deny her shape-shifting heritage, and is confronted with the necessity of embracing it to save the land and the people she loves.

Harpist in the Wind concludes the trilogy: war between the shape-shifters and the land rulers is inevitable, with Morgon as the focus. Using what he has learned and calling on those who befriended him in his journeys, Morgon and Raederle risk all in a wizardly battle for control over the ancient powers.

One of the major reasons that McKillip's trilogy is such a delight to read is her use of language to evoke images:

"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."
"He felt as if he were changing shape in front of her into something ancient as the world, around which riddles and legends and the colours of night and dawn clung like priceless, forgotten treasures."
or this description of a battle camp:
"Through the bare trees, he saw other fires, men rousing out of tents, stamping the blood awake in their bodies. Horses snorted the chill out of their lungs, pulling restively at their ropes. Tents, horse trappings, men's arms, and tunics all bore the battle colours of Anuin: blue and purple edged with the black of sorrow. The wraiths bore their own ancient colours when they bothered to clothe themselves with the memories of their bodies. They moved vividly and at will among the living, but the living, inured to many things at that point, took more interest in their breakfast than in the dead."
The book is full of scenes as vividly portrayed, with just the right turn of phrase illuminating the action.

McKillip traces her inspiration to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings:

"Even after so many years, I can find small jewels of inspiration mined from Tolkien's novels: the riddling, the underground waters and caves, the sense of destiny, prophecy inherent in the myth of the return of the king."
As true at that may be, Riddle-Master is much closer in style and scope to Le Guin's Earthsea Trilogy. Both books are about humans and their heroes are students of magic in worlds were wizardry is dead or dying. Both books have been classified as young adult novels, yet they are more complex and morally sophisticated than most young adult fantasies. McKillip, like Le Guin, writes in a poetic style that makes her books a delight to read and re-read. McKillip also references other classic fantasy, as when Raederle visits Madir the pig herder, who isn't quite what she appears to be. Yet Riddle-Master is neither a clone nor copy of Tolkien, Le Guin, or any other, but is unique in itself and in McKillip's vision of Morgon's world.

If I have any quarrel with the books, it is in the names for some of the places and characters. The High One's harpist is named Deth, which, although it leads to the telling of an ironic tale about a curse on the King of Osterland, is quite obvious. One of the dead wizards is Yrth, or "earth." Raederle raises the dead from a battlefield in the land of Hel. Her brother, Rood, is rude to Morgan when they meet. And the Prince of Hed must use logic, his head, to solve the riddles that will save the world. However, this is a minor quibble, easily overlooked.

If you haven't read Riddle-Master, find yourself a copy and a sunny spot to read. If you have, find a copy anyway, and prepare to enjoy rediscovering an old friend.

Copyright © 1999 by Lela Olszewski

Lela Olszewski is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, as well as an eclectic mix of other fiction and non-fiction. She is also a quilter and a librarian, and believes fully in Rosenberg's Law: Never apologize for your reading tastes. She has no cats and is currently reading Get Shorty, My Last Days as Roy Rogers, The Phoenix Guards, and Passionate Marriage.

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