"Riddle-Master of Hed" opens with the discovery of a jeweled crown under Prince Morgan's bed -- a sign that he outriddled a king who had never been defeated before. Along with the crown, he wins the right to marry his pal's sister, Raederle, the second-most beautiful woman in the continent of An. But Morgan is stopped on his way by a shipwreck and news of something dark and sinister creeping into the lands. Strange shapeshifting creatures are entering the lands, the wizards have vanished from the land, and somehow the three stars on Morgan's brow are connected to their presence and how to stop them. He heads off to Erlenstar Mountain, to find the High One -- and finds more than he bargained for...
"Heir of Sea And Fire" very slowly resolves the cliffhanger ending of "Riddle-Master," focusing instead on Princess Raederle. The land-rule -- a sort of sixth sense given to kings -- of Hed has passed to Morgan's brother, meaning that apparently Morgan is dead -- but Raederle and her father don't believe it's true. She sets off with a few faithful friends, and encounters the semi-sinister harpist Deth, the shapechangers, armies of the dead rampaging through her father's lands -- and disturbing news about her and her heritage.
"Harpist in the Wind" continues from the end of "Heir," with Morgan and Raederle planning what to do next. Strange rebel armies -- of both the living and the dead -- are massing in Ymris, and Morgan is taking the dead armies to Hed in an attempt to protect it. Then he and Raederle set off to find the High One and wring some answers out of him -- only he may not be what they expect. As Morgan grows in power and gains knowledge about all of An, he strips bare the secrets of the High One, the shocking identity of the shapechangers, and begins a new age for the lands...
There was never a less cliched author than Patricia McKillip -- the scope, majesty and richness of her invented world rival the best of the genre. Her plot twists and turns inside the lush, dreamlike prose that she's so good at, making a snowstorm as eerie as a magical showdown that can redefine an entire world's magic.
Her plot can be seen in two ways, as the growth of a naive young prince into a wise paragon of power, and also about the shifting of a land from one era into another. The Four Portions of An are a detailed, real-seeming fantasy world, and her princes, wizards, ghosts, and harpists are wise, sometimes sinister, mysterious and full of power.
Morgan is an excellent hero, who is not arrogant or desirous of the power that he is gaining. As confused by his own destiny as by the events around him, he spends much of the first book resisting his fate. Raederle is an excellent counterpart to Morgan, afraid of her heritage and fiercely determined to follow him wherever he goes. They are not a perfect couple: they bicker and argue occasionally, but they do not allow divisions to sit and fester. Deth is the ultimate ambiguous character, keeping you guessing until the end about what the heck is going on with him.
There are no elves, dwarves, fairies, gnomes, or similar fantastical creatures in this book. It came to me with a bit of a shock at the end that aside from the shapechangers, 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 startlingly eerie, subtle and pervasive rather than being flashy. Similarly, the shapechangers' menace isn't overdone -- much of their creepiness results from the question of what they are, and why they are doing what they do.
The complexity and depth of McKillip's early trilogy is still striking today. Her rich invented world and haunting, complex tale of magic, wizards and riddles make "Riddle of Stars" (now republished as "The Riddlemaster Trilogy") a modern fantasy classic.
As the author hints in her introduction, this trilogy lacks the maturity of her later works, such as "The Book of Atrix Wolfe," "Winter Rose," or the recent "Song for the Basilisk." Yet all the elements are evident that have contributed to making Patricia McKillip one of the finest authors writing fantasy fiction today: beautiful, at times lyrical, prose, imaginative and original themes and characters, and a wondrous sense of the magical that infuses both her world and story throughout. Each world she creates is unique and thoughtfully rendered, with elements designed to provoke both thought and wonder, and her characters are some of the most striking found in fantasy fiction--no small accomplishment indeed!
While I understand the exuberance behind some earlier reviewers' comments--this work is special and deserving of wide readership--some of the praise here goes overboard. Compared to the second two books, "The Riddle-Master of Hed" is a rough cut, both in conception and in terms of its writing. It lacks the assurance of the later two books, and, despite some marvelous passages, such as the book's opening and the story of Peven, at times rambles and exhibits writing in need of further polish and greater concision. Essential for establishing much of the basis for the rest of the trilogy, and containing many marvelous episodes and characters, it nonetheless displays the lack of focus and more assured writing skills evident in the following two books, and for this reason prevents me from according it full marks. And, this early trilogy is certainly not up to the standard of the author's later and more mature work.
That said, I nonetheless consider this a classic of the genre, far more imaginatively written than scores of other work currently lining retailer's shelves. Further, it is written with a style that sets the author apart from almost all other wordsmiths presently practicing the genre, a beauty of voice that makes her tales compelling and unique. And while I am dubious of the many comparisons to Tolkien, there is a sense and tone of wonder echoing throughout this story that I have never found elsewhere except in Tolkien's work. I cannot recommend this book more highly.
Written sometime in the late 70s or early 80s, these books easily ranked with the leaders of the time, easily beating out the Shanara books and many others.
I've read the series many times since I found them over a decade ago, including just last year. I've never regreted spending my money on them, and since they're pretty much no longer available, buying this book is the new reader's best choice.
The story is about the down to earth and simple ruler of a backwater land of pigfarmers, Hed. The Prince of Hed, Morgan, has quite an unusual talent for Riddles, and three stars emblazoned on his forehead from birth, that cause him all sorts of problems.
Riddles in these books are not of the common puzzle variety. They are complex tales about events in the past that have no clear answer, like murders and other mysteries. Because riddle crafting is an ongoing tradition, many riddles have answers; however the answers to those riddle may not have been widely desiminated, or may only be known to a single person. In a competition between two people over riddles, it is perfectly legal to ask your opponent to answer a riddle you know only you have the answer to. This isn't a problem most of the time, unless the competition you're in happens to hold your life in the balance. This view of riddles is unique in my reading experience, and quite enjoyable.
The magic system of these books is also excellent.
Other people here have alreay commented on the intense characterizations of the novels, so I'll avoid a repeat.
I will note the one drawback of the series. The map is not particularly detailed (thankfully, it has a map, many modern Fantasies do not). The map is also clearly attached to a greater continent, and of course the seaways are open. However, nothing is ever mentioned of lands beyond those on the map. It seems almost like the map and the lands it depicts really exist in a small pocket dimension. However, this is a common flaw in many Fantasy novels, and should not disuade anyone from reading them.
Get these books. Read them. If you haven't, you can't call yourself well-read in Fantasy.
This series has been my favorite for more years than I want to discuss. I've read it numerous times. Read more
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