Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose

imageWith his dying breath, Nial Lynn cursed his murderer — his own son, Tearle, who disappeared without a trace on the night that Niall died. Or so say the villagers, although no one is sure what the curse was, exactly, or even whether Tearle actually killed Nial. Fifty years later, Rois Melior, stopping to drink at a hidden well, a cool spring veiled by rose briers, sees something appear, something shaping itself out of the light that becomes a man. His name is Corbett Lynn and he has come to reclaim and restore his ancestral home. Lynn Hall. Niall’s curse, if it exists at all, still seems to be at work, however, and nothing is as it appears.

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.

This is another novel concerned with place, although not in the same way as Solstice Wood, a story set later in the history of the Lynns and Lynn Hall. The well and Lynn Hall are portals, but even these places, as physical locations, become fluid and insubstantial. Winter is the place in this story, a hard, cold place, a place in which people can be lost, as Laurel, Rois’ sister, begins to give up any desire to live waiting for Corbet’s return as the season grows colder and colder, while the threat to Rois and Corbet is that that pitiless woman will hold them in her realm forever.

McKillip is a highly sensory writer, part of the magic of her style, although she handles it so deftly that we are usually not even aware she’s doing it. In Winter Rose these descriptive cues hold another role as well, often providing the nudge that draws the worlds into touch, whether in Rois’ mind or in whatever passes for reality: Corbet arrives for a visit after Rois has made a night journey to Lynn Hall, telling her she left something; he holds out a drop-shaped jewel, blood red, a drop of blood she had shed the night before become a gem, adding to the building resonance in the story.

There is a struggle in this story, as there must be in any story, and I can’t help but think that many readers might want a more straightforward rendering than McKillip has provided here. As seems to be the case with McKillip, however, the struggle is nothing so simple as good versus evil. I’m not sure I can even say concisely what the adversaries are, but I can say that it is sheer stubborn humanity that wins out over the Outside, those forces that try to pull us out of our place, and the climax, when it comes, is, depending on your point of view, either breathtaking or confusing. My own feeling is that every author is allowed what I call a “style piece,” and I think this one may be McKillip’s. It is not a book to be read for plot, if any of her books can be said to be, but a book to be read for nuance, for color, for the sheer joy of finding the puzzles she has littered through the story and solving them one by one, and of reading over and over until you “get it,” because it’s worth doing.

Which is just my own way of saying that there is much more to WinterRose than is printed on its pages. To anyone who has read McKillip’s work, I can’t imagine that’s a real surprise.

(ace, 1996)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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