I disdain much of the world of adult fantasy, which is populated by sword-and-sorcery Tolkien ripoffs. Patricia McKillip is one of the few authors who are truly worthy of being called a writer of epics and classics.
Her world is a relatively simple yet complex one, in which the Prince of the poor farming country of Hed, Morgan, is found to have solved the mysterious Riddle of Peven, an old King who had to give up his crown to Morgan. Also, the man who solves the Riddle will also get to marry a princess, Raederle, the second-most beautiful woman in the world. (She is also the star of book two)
But as Morgan ventures away from Hed, he learns that strange things are happening. Sinister shapechanging creatures are creeping in like a plague, and he begins to question the history of his world. Long ago, there were wizards in the city of Lungold, and now there are none. Their knowledge is left behind in the riddles that often crop up during the book -- but Morgan begins to suspect that the man who founded Lungold, Ghisteslwchlohm, is still alive.
Why Ghisteslwchlohm destroyed the city, and whether he is alive are only two of the strange mysteries (riddles?) that Morgan must face. Accompanied by Deth, the harper of the High One (a person who reads lots of McKillip knows that she loves music -- especially harps), Morgan sets off to find the mysterious High One at Erlenstar Mountain. And the people he meet along the way help reveal the strange destiny that he has: the Star-Bearer, for the three stars on his brow. He learns new skills of shapeshifting and magic along the way to Erlenstar Mountain, where a shock awaits him...
Frankly a summary can't really express the complexity of this novel. This is only the bare bones of it. McKillip's prose in this book is not as lush or dreamy as her future books, but what there is in this relatively slim book (no 900-page tomes, thank God) is amazing. Like Tolkien, the villains of her books are more nebulous than cackling men in silly black armor -- the shapechangers are all the more sinister for their creepy lack of presence, but their effect on the lands in the book. The scene where a shapechanger sings a song about Hed to Morgon is one of the creepiest I've seen in ages.
There are no elves, dwarves, faeries, or similar fantastical creatures in this book. It came to me with a bit of a shock at the end that there were only humans in this -- humans who can learn magic, who make mistakes and who have to search for the truth instead of having it handed to them on a plate. The magic is learnable -- and isn't flashy or show-offy, but subtle and pervasive. Similarly, the shapechangers' menace isn't overdone -- a few passages, a couple of sinister confrontations that seem almost dreamlike. And this makes them all the more freaky.
McKillip's fondness for little in-jokes shows here, as the riddling Morgan is the prince of "Hed"; he comments in one scene that "Deth harped at his father's wedding". And she doesn't do overwrought, complex names like N'garle Tor'bane: simple names like Aum, Peven, An, Re, Rood -- aside from Ghisteslwchlohm, the most complex name is Raederle's, and it all adds to the poetry of the prose.
And McKillip also does something that Tolkien also did, and which many fantasy authors don't do: She leaves many things up to our imagination. For instance, the Great Shout: We're not entirely sure what it is, we're not sure how the characters do it, but we do know that it is awe-inspiring and we want to learn it too. Similarly, we don't get lengthy monologues about the magic that Morgan learns how to transform into a vesta, but the FEEL of it is clear and present.
Morgan is a great reluctant hero, whose main hope is to marry Raederle, go home to Hed, and fix Snog Nutt's roof. He gets sucked into one situation after another while trying to turn back on his destiny, and deny that it would have dire consequences. The reader breaths a sigh of relief when he finally accepts it and moves toward Erlenstar (isn't that a great name?). Deth is amazingly ambiguous, a likeable character though he is secretive and may not be entirely trustworthy. He's also a nice change from the Gandalf/Merlin stereotype. We also get likable supporting characters like Morgon's buddy Rood, shapeshifting Har, the stately Morgol of Herun (who reminds me of Galadriel) and her brave daughter.
I'm looking forward to reading "Heir of Sea and Fire" and "Harpist in the Wind," the next two books in the trilogy.. These books are truly epic classics, a must-read for any lover of fantasy.