Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Review: The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip

Today: The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip, consisting of The Riddle-Master of Hed, copyright 1976; Heir of Sea and Fire, copyright 1977; and Harpist in the Wind, copyright 1979. All three of the editions I have were published by Del Rey Books.

Back in the days when I was but a wee Bok globule, I read a trilogy called the Lord of the Rings. Being greatly excited by this work, I looked for other, similar books that I might enjoy as much. Alas, there was not much on offer in those days, but eventually I did come across a book called The Riddle-Master of Hed, the back cover of which promised wizards, riddles, dead lords, evil forces, shapechangers and perhaps most importantly, that it was book one in a trilogy.


Morgan is the Prince of Hed, and island state in a land ruled by the High One. Shortly before the events at the start of the book, Morgan's parents die in a shipwreck, and the "land-rule" (a magical divine right including near-complete knowledge of land itself) passes to him. He's at the College of the Riddle-Masters in the town of Caithnard being trained in riddle-mastery when this happens. On his way home he decides to detour to the kingdom of An (also part of the High One's realm), a land where the dead are only loosely bound to their graves, and a crown awaits anyone who can win a riddle contest with a dead king. Morgan wins the contest, takes the crown, and sneaks home to Hed without letting anyone know. At this point the story begins.

The High One's harpist, named Deth, arrives on Hed to express official condolences over the loss of Morgan's parents. In the course of conversing with Morgan, he figures out that Morgan is the one who won the riddle contest in An, and tells Morgan that the entirety of the High One's realm is gossiping and puzzling over the mystery. Raederle, the daughter of the king of An and the sister of Morgan's College friend, has been betrothed in advance by her father to whosoever wins the riddle contest. Morgan decides the time is right for him to travel back to An, this time as a suitor for her hand.

On his way to An he is almost killed in a shipwreck, almost killed by complete strangers, and almost killed by the Queen of Ymris -- who turns out not to really be the Queen at all, but a shapechanger instead. All these events seem to be related to three stars that he has on his forehead. It's never quite clear to me, but I assume he normally grows his hair long enough to cover them. The stars appear to be part of a centuries old prophecy, and the attacks by shapechangers compel Morgan to start investigating their meaning. This takes Morgan on a years long tour of all the kingdoms in the realm, where he picks up clues that seem to involve the High One himself.

Book 2, Heir of Sea and Fire, focuses on Raederle, Morgan's betrothed and her quest to find him after he mysteriously disappears. To say much more would give too much away, but she does discover that she has familial ties to the shapechangers who've been hounding Morgan across the realm. In book 3, Harpist in the Wind, Morgan and Raederle join forces, both of them having learned some potent magic during the course of their adventures in the first two books. Together they learn the significance of the stars on Morgan's forehead, and what the shapechangers are after, and in the process make some unpleasant discoveries about the founding of the High One's realm.

My Opinion:

A good tale, compactly told, especially in light of today's behemoth, multi-volume fantasies (Jordan, Martin, Erikson, I'm looking at you). Combined, all three books would barely amount to a medium sized volume in Erikson's Malazan series. But McKillip gets the job done. I often find it amazing that I like these books at all. Her prose is often described as "lyrical", which to my mind often means "intrusive and showy", and that has been my experience with a few others of her books that I've tried.

The short length also means these books lack the detailed world building that is more or less standard in epic fantasy today. McKillip manages to invoke a detailed world without actually showing all the details. Sometimes this reveals holes in the fabric of her world, for instance a political system featuring feudal overlords with millenial lifespans, everyman farmer-princes, and law and order imposed from above by the threat of magic of the largely absent High One. I just don't get the feeling that such a system could last a normal lifetime, much less a millenium.

Magic is shown as being, well magical of course, but also utter without any rhyme or reason. This despite the fact that a wizard's school flourished in the realm for hundreds of years. What were they teaching, if magic was not amenable to being understood by an organized framework.

Despite the fact that it sometimes feels as though McKillip didn't think through the consequences of the world she was setting up, I still really like these books, largely for the characters. Morgan and Raederle carry the books, and Raederle in particular is one of my favorites. I first read these books almost thirty years ago, and only infrequently re-read them (maybe twice), but I can still remember the slow developement of a relationship that they were tossed into by prophecy and the arrogance of rulers. Even at the end of the third book, they are still trying to figure out if they can be together, even though they clearly love each other.

The Round-up:

If you like your fantasy dark and gritty, where you can smell the urine in the back alleys, then these books probably aren't for you. If you like your fantasy with a strong, self consistent underpinning of magic and politics, then these books aren't for you. If you like your fantasy high, and let's go ahead and say lyrical, with an actual plot, then these books may be for you. McKillip's fantasy isn't like anyone else's I've read (not necessarily a good thing in this case), and The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy isn't really like any of her other work I've read (definitely a good thing). Although the resemblence isn't strong, the books I'm most strongly reminded of when I read
The Riddle-Master of Hed are Le Guin's first three Earthsea books.


What other people have to say about the Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy:

Lela Olszewski at SF Site

Robert N. Tilendis at Green Man Review

Laurie Thayer at Rambles

James Schellenberg at The Cultural Gutter

A review by Russ Allbery

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