Patricia A. McKillip has left us. One of the finest writers that has ever graced our presence having written The Forgotten Beasts of Eld which won a richly deserved World Fantasy Award nearly fifty years ago, and Solstice Wood, one of my favourite works by her which garnered a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature as did Something Rich and Strange, another favorite work of mine.
Paul, one of our reviewers, offers us his thoughts on her.
To have power over a thing, name it. To name a thing, know it. To know a thing: become it. — Patricia McKillip‘s “Camouflage”
If the world of fantasy is a series of baronies, duchies, emirates, city states, and kingdoms, and every fantasy author has a place of their own in fantasy, there is a special realm. A realm of subtle magic, and of beautiful music. Where the people are a full part of the land, a rich place where its creatrix has imbued the place with immersive detail. Where bards sing and myth and legend wind into the fabric of the land, the soul of the people who inhabit it. A land of poetry and power, always wondrous to cross the border and visit.
This is the realm of Patricia McKillip.
In the mid to late 1990s, I started a serious campaign to really understand a genre I had already been reading for 20 years: science fiction and fantasy. I had been led by chance, choice and suggestion up to that point but in the middle of the 1990s I decided to be more systematic in my reading of SFF. Not being connected to a wider community of science fiction, I used the tools I had on hand, and leaned on my issues of Locus to tell me what I should be reading – by looking at finalists and winners of various awards. The Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Locus ward, and among others, the Mythopoeic Award.
And so among the many fine authors and their work I thus started to discover would be Patricia McKillip. It seems to be a truism for me that if I really like an author’s work, no matter how much better their subsequent work is, I bond very strongly with the first work of theirs I read. This is definitely true of McKillip. When I saw in that long ago issue of Locus that she had won the Mythopoeic Award for Song for the Basilisk, I went and dutifully picked it up at Forbidden Planet. (I was blessed, living in NYC, to have a dedicated SFF bookstore I could rely on).
The lush cover reminded me a bit of Tom Canty’s work (it is actually Kinuko Y. Craft). The lush and richly descriptive and immersive prose reminded me some of the more poetic aspects of Tolkien, or the descriptive power of early Zelazny, or Peter S Beagle. I fell for the story of Caladrius/Rook/Griffin hard and well. For all that I love sorcerers and martial heroes, having a bard as a hero was something relatively unusual in my reading. It’s a careful and well drawn thing, a writer who knows the power of words, the power of music, the power of language and revelation, to use a character who is raised to be all of that to point and counterpoint the very techniques that the author uses to bring the story to life. And it was a revelation to have a hero deal with the villain not by a swordfight, or a magical contest, but with the power of music. And even there, the denouement is not as straightforward or direct as you might think. It’s a high wire balancing act that charmed me into her worlds, firmly and forever.
I then subsequently started reading McKillip’s work, backwards and since, from the Celtic themed Riddle-Master books all the way to the last work of hers I read, “Camouflage,” a story in Jonathan Strahan’s The Book of Dragons, introducing us to yet another everyday character, Will Fletcher, who is better at hiding his talents even from himself than even he knows. It is a story of hope and building and working toward a future.
I find that I have not read as much of McKillip’s short fiction as I have her novels. However, her short stories, especially the aforementioned and most accessible “Camouflage,” I feel ARE a good way for readers who might be reluctant or nervous to immerse themselves into McKillip’s work and just want to try a taste of her down to earth characters, her love of language, of poetry, of evocative description, of characterization and beats of the heart that draw you to love and fall in love with her characters. In an age and time where a lot of epic fantasy is frenetic, kinetic, and dark, there is a more stately and beautiful pace that McKillip’s work evokes. It is not all light and sweetness; there can be depth and darkness in her work, but her worlds are fundamentally more optimistic and brighter than a large share of fantasy today.
Sadly, now, McKillip and her work have come to an end. Her influence (never her shadow, she illuminated, not overshadowed her peers) runs to fantasy today, even in this age of grimdark fantasy and gritty shades of grey. Authors like Michele Sagara, Julie Czerneda, Daniel Abraham and others carry on her tradition, extending and reinventing and exploring what McKillip first illuminated, extending the boundaries of fantasy in her vein.
I will close with a quote from early in A Song for the Basilisk, that just shows the sheer power of her ferocious literary
“Play the song you made for the picochet. See if you can find it on the harp.”
He tried, but the sea kept getting in the way of the song, and so did the hinterlands. He gazed at the floating hills, wondering what he would see if he walked across them, alone through unfamiliar trees, crossing the sun’s path to the top of the world. Who would he meet? In what language would they speak to him? The language the sea spoke intruded then, restless, insistent, trying to tell him something: what song he heard in the seashell, what word the rock sang, late at night under the heavy pull of the full moon. His fingers moved, trying to say what he heard, as the sea flowed like blood in and out of the hollows and caves of the rock, trying to reach its innermost heart, as if it were a string that had never been played. He came close, he felt, reaching for the lowest notes on the harp. But it was his own heart he split, and out of it came fire, engulfing the rock in the sea.
Requiscat in pace, Patricia McKillip.
‘It’s quite gratifying to revisit books from one’s childhood,’ Camille said. ‘Actually, it can be gratifying or disastrous. I’m pleased to say it was the former for me with Patricia A. McKillip’s Moon Flash. Originally published by Argo Books in 1984, Moon Flash is one of a duology, though this first book is absolutely readable as a stand-alone novel.’
She enjoyed The Moon and the Face almost as much as its prequel Moon Flash. ‘While not quite as spontaneously joyous and lovely as the first book, The Moon and the Face is still a great little novel. As with Moon Flash, I was almost overcome with gratitude for the lack of antagonistic forces and the complete absence of evil intentions. The characters are presented with challenges, yes, and death and fear, physical hardships and emotional turmoil, even grief and sadness. But never ill-intent nor maliciousness of any sort.
She didn’t find The House on Parchment Street particularly convincing as a book for young readers. ‘There’s no doubt this book is intended for younger audiences. It might best fit the sensibilities of what’s now commonly referred to as a middle grade novel, but it doesn’t have anything close to the depth or complexity — of language, of situation, of characterization — most modern readers expect of a young adult novel.’
Cat was not much impressed with McKillip’s one attempt at a science fiction novel. ‘Fool’s Run is (mercifully) long out of print. I purchased a copy online for a amazingly cheap price – less than the cost of a latte at your favorite coffee shops where the seats are ever-so-comfy and the music playing is ever-so-cool. The sort of place that beckons to you to settle in with a good novel for a few hours of reading while sipping great coffee and perhaps a bit of that carrot cake with sour cream frosting. Sound good? Not with this novel, as no amount of caffeine and sugar will keep you awake.’
Cat said he became a fan when he read the short story collection Harrowing the Dragon. ‘I must admit that I was not particularly a fan of hers ’til I started reading these tales, but I am now! Oh, I picked up a novel or two by her, but they didn’t really capture me fancy ‘tall so I put them aside in favour of other reading material as I’m wont to do when, as there always is around here, more reading material than there is possibly time to read all of it.’
Deborah found great comfort in The Bell at Sealey Head. ‘As usual for a waltz, the pace of the novel is slow and measured. Although the resolution of the mystery is surprising and satisfying, there are no shockingly breathless moments in the tale. This is comfort reading at its best: consistent, multi-faceted, and layered, all wrapped up in McKillip’s typically intoxicating and evocative language.’
Elizabeth was frustrated at the tale McKillip told in Od Magic. ‘The time-honoured battle between cautious, restricting conservatism and wild, chaotic artistry is hardly new, and becomes almost redundant when stretched to fit a novel like Od Magic. If sufficiently pared-down, it might have made a passable short story, but as it is, this novel really is odd. And not in the good way.’
Grey was immediately drawn to the story of Nepenthe, a foundling raised by librarians. ‘McKillip excels at creating magical realities that are consistent, without any glitches or sentimentality. Often, her novels end like the oldest fairy tales and ballads, beautifully but strangely; the reader senses that “The End” is governed by magical rules, not by any human logic. In Alphabet of Thorn, there are magical happenings and resolutions, but the fate of the human characters is a human fate, familiar.
Grey was pleased with McKillip’s particular use of magic in The Book of Atrix Wolfe. ‘Like Ursula Le Guin in the Earthsea stories, McKillip uses the metaphor of magic to tell a deep truth about power: the more we try to bend circumstances to our will, the more inevitable forces we set in motion; they will find their ends, with or without us.’
Of The Changeling Sea, Grey waxed poetic. ‘This is a pocket-sized paperback book of 137 pages. The story inside is small but potent, like a well-crafted spell. It makes perfect sense, but it’s fairy tale sense, not reasonable sense. To use a poetry metaphor, McKillip’s style isn’t like iambic quadrameter or pentameter, but rather like Gerard Manley Hopkin’s sprung rhythm.’
Mike had high praise for another of her works: ‘Patricia McKillip, a World Fantasy Award winner, writes with a sparse style that evokes great magic with the barest of words. She possesses a fine knowledge of funky musical instruments and the endearing qualities of musicians. Her power is that of place; it defines and motivates her characters. Song for the Basilisk explores how the expression of that power is shaped by the predilections and history of those who wield it.’
Richard reviewed McKillip’s final story collection from 2016: ‘With Dreams of Distant Shores, Patricia A. McKillip delivers something that is not quite your typical short story collection. While the point of entry is a series of shorter pieces, the collection builds to and is anchored by the lengthy novella “Something Rich and Strange”, with an essay on writing high fantasy orthogonal to the usual tropes. The book then ends with appreciation of McKillip’s work (and the stories in the collection) by Peter S. Beagle, an elegant coda to a warm, thought-provoking collection.’
Music is quite important in McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain, as Robert makes clear: ‘I’ve noted before the importance of music in the works of Patricia McKillip. I’ve probably also said something about the poetic quality of her writing. I know I’ve mentioned the way magic infuses her stories, context rather than event. That’s all here, in The Bards of Bone Plain, a story about poetry and music and magic.’
‘I was surprised some while back to discover that Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle-Master Trilogy was marketed as young-adult fantasy when it was first published,’ Robert said. ‘I don’t think I’m particularly backward in terms of understanding what I read, and I was in my thirties when I first read the books (which have earned an unchallengeable place on my “reread frequently” list), and I knew there were things I was missing. Even in a recent re-reading, the trilogy is a complex, subtle and evocative story that lends itself to much deeper examination than one might expect.’
He was even more impressed with In the Forests of Serre, which draws on Slavic folklore. ‘I’ve been reading a lot of McKillip lately, and In the Forests of Serre is one of the most impressive of her books I’ve come across. She brings us her signature themes – love, redemption, growth and maturation – with a slightly different slant.’
‘I’ve been reading Patricia A. McKillip’s fiction for more years than I care to admit at this point,’ Robert said in his review of Kingfisher. ‘It was always different, in one way or another, from her wry and sometimes slapstick humor to her very contemporary sensibility, no matter the universe she was exploring in any given story, to the sometimes devastating honesty of her characters, to the magic of her telling. It was always unique, a matter not so much of no one else being able to tell that story in quite that way, as of that it would never occur to anyone to try.’
Robert also looked at Solstice Wood, a sequel of sorts to Winter Rose though you do not read that novel first: ‘McKillip has always been a writer whose books can themselves be called “magical,” and it’s even more interesting to realize that she seldom uses magic as a thing of incantations and dire workings, or as anything special in itself. It just is, a context rather than an event, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.’
Robert reviewed an old favourite: ‘The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was the first book by Patricia A. McKillip that I ever read. Two things struck me about it: it was different than any other fantasy I had read to that point, most of which were in the high-minded, seriously heroic mode, but written in “realistic” prose; and it was funny. I didn’t know fantasy could be funny.’ (Dragon? Of course there’s a dragon.)
Reviewing Winter Rose, Robert said, ‘The story is told in McKillip’s characteristically elliptical style, kicked up an order of magnitude. Sometimes, in fact, it is almost too poetic, the narrative turning crystalline then shattering under the weight of visions, images, things left unsaid as Rois and Corbet are drawn into another world, or come and go, perhaps, at will or maybe at the behest of a mysterious woman of immense power who seems to have no fixed identity but who is, at the same time, all that is coldest and most pitiless of winter.’
Sara reviewed The Sorceress and the Cygnet & The Cygnet and the Firebird and found them, well, magical. ‘The Cygnet series is a pair of books worthy of McKillip’s reputation for the numinous and lovely. Both are full of magic, though they are as different as two sides of the same golden coin.’
Tracy, an admitted fan, found nothing to change her opinion in Ombria in Shadow. ‘This is a wonderful story with many intriguing characters who are much more than they appear to be. Not least among them is the city itself, a city that hides and holds its own secrets, a city that shifts and changes. A city of stairs that lead nowhere, of half-seen glimpses through hidden doorways, a shadow city that overlays this city. What is the origin and what does it mean, this story of a change, when the shadow city becomes real and the real becomes shadow?’
Vonnie noted that ‘McKillip uses the sea in many of her books, but in Something Rich and Strange the sea is not only the setting and a metaphor for mystery and magic and change – the sea is the subject. The book begins with protagonists Megan and Jonah (how is that for an apropos name?) experiencing a sea change after a long winter during which their lives had settled into a routine dependent on the shore. But the sea brings ambiguity, too. Just as the sea has the power to transform the people and things near it, the characters slowly realize that humanity has the power to overwhelm the sea, defeat it and kill the life in it. Moreover, man is doing so.’
We’ll let the author herself have the last word, as it were. Deborah J. Brannon conducted an interview with Patricia A. McKillip for us in 2008, in which she generously discussed the purpose of fairytales, her writing process, and much more.
We start off our video reviews with a Tenth Doctor story, ‘The Unicorn & The Wasp’ which Cat reviews: ‘One of my favourite episodes of the newer episodes of this series was a country house mystery featuring a number of murders and, to add an aspect of metanarrative to the story, writer Agatha Christie at the beginning of her career. It would riff off her disappearance for ten days which occurred just after she found her husband in bed with another woman. Her disappearance is a mystery that has never been satisfactorily answered to this day.’
An English country house murder mystery also gets reviewed by David: ‘As traditional as the genres he chose might have been, in Altman’s hand they were turned upside-down, and sideways. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie became anti-hero and opium addict in Altman’s “western” McCabe & Mrs. Miller, set to the music of Leonard Cohen! A laconic Elliott Gould became Raymond Chandler’s private dick Phillip Marlowe in an updated LA for Altman’s “detective” classic The Long Goodbye. Robert Altman has been the most American of directors, and now, in Gosford Park, he takes on the English country house murder mystery. Altman’s Agatha Christie film? What could this mean?’
Carletti’s Jakobsen Coffee Time chocolate collection pleased Denise: ‘Danish chocolates?Don’t mind if I do! Especially when the package itself gives me a great excuse to indulge. Coffee time? Yes please! And while these chocolates would go great with coffee, I had mine with a stout, and then a mug of green tea. I was pleased.’
Robert has a single source chocolate for us: ‘Lolli & Pops Madagascar Sambirano comes in a flat 2-ounce bar, with a lightly incised pattern and company logo on the front, but no scoring deep enough to break the bar into bit-size pieces. It’s certainly worth sampling — if you can find it. Apparently Lolli & Pops, which has been largely a boutique confectioner with outlets in shopping malls, has been forced to closed a number of stores. So, happy hunting.’
With the summer reading season here, you may be looking for some light reading, maybe a graphic novel series … Cat has just the thing for you: ‘So can I say 500 Essential Graphic Novels will help assist me – or you, for that matter – with finding new series? Quite well I’d say, given that it covers more than three hundred fifty authors, four hundred artists, and yes, five hundred graphic novels.’
Or perhaps you’d like to start on a classic series like Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Rebecca did, and wrote up a lengthy omnibus review for us. ‘Gaiman’s series has provided us with a modern mythology. There are many college students wandering around today who are a little fuzzy on Zeus and Athena, but they can name all seven of the Endless, and quote Gaiman as if he were Euripides (mind you, they’ll be able to name Loki’s first wife, but only because she’s in Sandman, and they’ll be surprised to hear that he had another). The Sandman is slowly sinking into the consciousness — and unconscious — of a generation, and providing them with a framework for examining themselves and their worlds. And I think that’s a good thing.
Gary wrote about a multi-media experience from a group of Serbian artists known as Vartra. ‘Basma is the second album by the Serbian folk collective called Vartra. The band makes music that’s fairly characterized as neo-Slavic doom folk, a tribal, rhythmic, shamanic blend of drone and beat, heightened by electronics, rattling percussion, didgeridoo and vocals that veer from soft chants to eerie wails. It’s easily the most dramatic music I’ve heard in many a season.’
‘If you are as fond of overtone singing as our former staffer Big Earl Sellar was, you might be interested in New Asia’s Chorchok. They’re from the Altai Republic in southwestern Siberia,’ Gary says. Be advised, however: ‘Before I go any further, I want to note that this is most definitely folk rock music, not traditional Altai music, even though New Asia employs many traditional instruments.’
For some reason my thoughts have turned to Finland and Sweden, so in a stroll through the Archives I was on the lookout for reviews of music from there. I found some choice offerings, I think you’ll agree.
Brendan liked two very different Nordic discs, one from Sweden and one from Finland: Ale Möller’s The Horse and the Crane, and Myllärit’s In the Light of the White Night. The former, he said, is ‘ …a thoroughly entertaining, thoroughly entrancing set of music made for a theatre concert based upon a set of novels by Sara Lidman about the extension of the railway into Northern Sweden. Filled with the stark instrumentation and ethereal sounds that seem to pervade the best Swedish music, this suite really does feel like the perfect soundtrack to a railway tour through glaciers.’ Of the latter: ‘These folk are as Old World in charm and sound as they come, giving us a smooth, elegant, and very evocative style of playing. In fact, like their compatriots Värttinä, they even manage to make polkas entertaining to non-dancers.’
Cat is a big fan of Swedish singer Emma Hårdelin of Garmarna, whom he considers, ‘… one of a select group of female Nordic vocalists whom the ancient Nordic deities blessed with magic!’ So what did he think of her other group Triakel’s debut disc Sånger från 63º N? ‘Liking the music of Garmarna more than just a bit, I was a bit hesitant to hear what she sounded like in another group as I was afraid that it might not equal the work she did in that group. Happily, I was wrong, quite wrong.’
Judith loved the Finnish-American music on Al Reko and Oren Tikkanen’s The Finn Hall Recordings, which combined four self-released cassette tapes onto two CDs. ‘These boys aren’t the stereotypical polka band, but they do play a folky version of the Euro-polka spectrum of mazurkkas, valssis, jenkkas, and of course polkkas. …This collection provides a wonderful and charming view into the worlds of the old Finnish-American immigrant music and of “Finnish country music” in Mother Finland.’
Judith also had some thoughts about Lopunajan Merkit and Itku Pitkasta Ilosta, two albums by Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus, better known for their Finnish ‘cult ethno metal’ than anything like folk. ‘Is this music folk? Not any less so than singer/songwriters who set their songs to pop arrangements, or for instance, Fairport’s “Red Tide.” ‘
Gåte’s Iselilja was their second disc reviewed by our Swedish writer Lars, and he liked the Norwegian folk rockers’ sophomore effort every bit as much as he did their debut. ‘Gåte have succeeded in developing their own brand of music. If you are a folk purist you should stay well out of earshot, but if you like people using traditional music as a starting point and then pouring a great number of musical influences into a melting pot before finishing the product you should check Iselilja out
‘It’s hard to develop warm and fuzzy feelings for an instrument that produces the sounds of prolonged belching,’ Liz said of Tapani Varis’s album called simply Jews Harp. ‘Nonetheless, I was prepared to try.’
Naomi enjoyed the music and humor dished up by Swedish quartet Samla Mammas Manna on their CD Kaka: ‘The group uses their instruments as well as their voices to provide the hilarity. This takes a great deal of talent to pull off with a live audience, but they seem to have it mastered! There are moments of comedic relief all over this CD, interspersed with some really great Nordic jazz.’
Robert said a CD from a Danish/Swedish quartet was perhaps too eclectic for its own good. ‘Strå is Fylgja’s second CD, and presents a sometimes problematic stylistic mix. There are traditional songs from Sweden, Norway, and Ireland, as well as songs composed by members of the group.’
Our What Not this time is the question of what is your favourite Tolkien. Like many others, The Hobbit is the favourite of Tobias Buckell: ‘Oh, it’s The Hobbit, hands down. I mean, I adore the novel because unlike Tolkien’s later work, it’s not overburdened. It’s a lean, well paced adventure that takes you on this incredible tour through Tolkien’s countries and peoples and mythologies. I read it every couple years just to experience it all over again. I know The Lord of the Rings is more popular in common culture, but I struggled through it and tried to pick them up recently and just found that I really kept waiting for things to just move. Frankly I thought the movies were a big improvement, although there were parts just kept limping along, like the end, that reminded of reading the books.’
Given our Nordic music this edition, Let’s finish off with Garmarna, a Swedish group founded in nineteen ninety after several of them who were friends saw traditional Swedish music performed in a film. Yes that’s what they claim happened. Emma Härdelin, their vocalist, would join them several years after that. ‘Vedergällningen is from a Swedish concert they did some twenty years ago.
On second thought, also for your listening pleasure, the 2015 Førde Traditional and World Music Festival 25th Anniversary Sampler edition offers us up the String Sisters of which Emma is a member, playing ‘The Champagne Jig Goes To Columbia and Pat & Al’s Jig’ which they performed at that festival. Isn’t it simply amazing?