KINGFISHER

by Patricia A. McKillip

Ace

978-0-425-27176-6

346pp/$27.00/February 2016

Kingfisher
cover by Judith Lagerman

Reviewed by Steven H Silver


Patricia A. McKillip tackles the Arthurian mythos in her newest novel, Kingfisher. Although the title most directly refers to an inn which is central to her story, it also a reference to the legend of the Fisher King, which forms the basis for McKillipís story. The Fisher King legend tells of a wounded king whose wound reflects the desolation of his own kingdom. Healing the Fisher King, who is also the keeper of the Holy Grail, also serves to heal the kingdom.

In Kingfisher, McKillip paints an interesting, and seemingly anachronistic, civilization from the very first page. Her world is one of knights and cars, witches and restaurants. Pearce Oliver begins the book living with his mother, a witch, and working in her restaurant when a chance visit by three knights convinces him to leave his home at Desolation Point for the royal city of Severluna in an attempt to find his mysterious, and missing, father. The plot of the novel is not its major point, and, in fact as Pearce and the other major characters, notably Carrie, a chef at the Kingfisher Inn, and Prince Daimon, the kingís illegitimate son, move through the novel and the search for Severlunaís Grail equivalent, McKillip seems less concerned about fitting her plot and characters together neatly and more concerned about building an atmosphere, which she does admirably.

While the vagueness of the setting is one of the strengths of Kingfisher, when McKillip is vague in other areas, it doesnít work as well. The plot never fully coalesces and the characters are at one remove. With so many of the characters having their roots in the food industry, whether Pearce catching fish for his motherís restaurant in the opening, Carrie working in her fatherís inn, or the setting of the Stillwater restaurant, McKillip never quite describes the food in a fully gustatory manner.

In many ways, McKillipís disjointed telling of the Grail story fits admirably into the Medieval Arthurian tradition, where many of the stories and poems donít quite scan right to a modern sensibility. She, like the Medieval writers, takes the world as we know it and superimposes a magical overlay, which gives the world a slightly out of focus, but intriguing, appearance. Where magic rules, and it is on the upswing in the realms governed by King Arden of Severluna, rationality begins to fail.

McKillipís characters are by no means perfect. Pearce, who character and name are both inspired by the nearly pure Perceval of the Grail Quest, steals a knife from the kitchen of the Kingfisher Inn, without fully understanding his own actions. Relationships arenít always what they seem, from the obvious with Prince Daimanís ignorance of his motherís identity to Carrieís realization that her father, Merle, is a lycanthrope. McKillip initially throws these details out haphazardly, which adds to the disjointed feel of the novel, but eventually ties these threads together.

Ultimately, Kingfisher is not an entirely satisfying novel. The setting is unique and draws the reader in, but the characters and situations never quite fight their way through the magical overlay that makes the familiar strange. The very thing that seems to welcome the reader also pushes the reader away.


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