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Monday, March 27, 2006

Alphabet of Thorn and Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip is one of the finest writers of fantasy currently writing. I have enjoyed all of her books, some more than others.

Reading a book by McKillip is to enter a dream. There are things going on that you can feel, but not understand, and when you wake up, you aren't certain where you have been, or for how long. My response, recently, upon reading one of her books, was to start over, looking to find out. Here's a sentence from a recent review of another of McKillip's books:
As always, McKillip writes sparely, with elegance and precision, and this time disguises her usual insufficiency of plot behind an annoying and disconcerting succession of first-person narrators.

That is a pretty good one-sentence summary of McKillip, although harsh. Some of her books have a more discernable plot than others, however, and Alphabet of Thorn, has one. I don't want to give it away, except to say that there is an alphabet, and at there is least one book written in it, and the letters of that alphabet are thorns. There is a Wikipedia article on the McKillip's book, which does summarize the plot.

One thing I will give away is a sample of McKillip's writing:
. . . She went into it.
It was not the school that the students saw. That school was an eccentric, drafty puzzle-box of stone that changed shape according to their needs. Sometimes the stone walls would shift to let in the wood, sometimes the sky; any kind of weather was apt to appear. Stairs and corridors were rarely predictable, except for finding meals and beds. Monsters might roam the halls; doors might open to reveal riches, or strange beasts, or nothing at all as far as the eye could see. Through the centuries different mages had worked their spells into the rooms as tests and teaching devices; not even Felan knew anymore what waited behind every door, or how many magically charmed rooms lay unopened, forgotten until chanced upon by some hapless student. The school itself became a student's first test: the inflexible mind that balked at its erratic behavior never stayed long.
The school that opened itself to Vevay was a comfortable, cluttered place, with thick carpets and musty tapestries and many fat candles. Owls queried her passing; in the windows, ravens and kingfishers muttered sleepily. A milk-white snake in a dark corner uncoiled its head and opened a sapphire eye at her. Books lined the walls, lay open on stands; some of them whispered constantly, reading themselves aloud. The hallway she walked opened into a room with an elaborately patterned floor of wood and ivory, and walls of oak and stained glass. In it, she found Felan, who would have been expecting her the moment she set foot in the wood.
- Alphabet of Thorn
(New York: Berkley, 2004) pp.109-110.

Vevay is the chief mage of the kingdom. Felan runs the school for mages for her. The school is, more or less, in a magical wood. It often floats above the wood, and there is a reflection of it in the sky near it.

I won't post separately on Ombria in Shadow (New York: Ace, 2002) but will append a reaction here.

This is a dark work. There isn't much vengeance in it, although the evil Domina Pearl is finally defeated in the end. There's a lot of murky stuff, unresolved. Even a second reading left me unsure what had gone on, although sure that McKillip had created a world that somehow drew me in. Ombria is a large old city. Is there really a shadow city? If so, can you only get to it by some sort of magic, or is it just old and forgotten? Are Domina Pearl's guards alive, and, if so, are they human? What is Domina Pearl? What is on her black ships? These are some of the questions I can't answer.
It is often true, in McKillip's books, that parentage is obscure, or that parents have died untimely deaths. That's especially so in Ombria. Mag is told that she is a creature of wax, but she isn't. Whose child is she? Kyel Greve, the child prince, has lost both mother and father. Ducon Greve's mother is dead, and his father is unknown. Lydea's mother has died. These four are more or less normal, and they are the characters who, with help from Faey, the sorceress Mag works for, finally destroy Domina Pearl.
One theme throughout the book is art. Ducon Greve and Kyel communicate through sketches. Ducon sketches a lot of things, in fact, this is his main occupation, seemingly.
Something that's usually found in McKillip's writing, but not in this book, is trees and forests. Not only in In the Forests of Serre, but in most of her other works, there are trees and forests. Not so in Ombria. There are weeds growing on the dock, and a patch of sunflowers near the palace gate, but that's about it. I missed the trees and forests.

*  *  *  *  *

On June 25, 2011, I revised the first few paragraphs.


Brandy said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes :). I appreciate it.

Adam said...

Is Alphabet of Thorns a stand-alone book?

Are her other works worth reading, as well?

Sounds like interesting literature, and I always enjoy finding new authors. Thanks!

Martin LaBar said...

You are welcome, Brandy.

Yes, these are stand-alone books, Adam. I think all her books are worth reading, at least once, and I have read some of them twice or more.

Thanks for commenting!

Anonymous said...

Ach! And here I was hoping Ombria in Shadow would be one of her more plotted books. Oh well.

Martin LaBar said...

November 4, 2008: Thanks, anonymous. McKillip is more about style, character, and mood than plot, I guess, although her books do have plots.