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Riddling it out,
This review is from: The Riddle-Master's Game (FANTASY MASTERWORKS) (Paperback)
Usually when an author is compared to Tolkien, it means that there are lots of swords, sorcery, countries clashing and a dark lord, but that the spirit of the master of fantasy is missing. This is one trilogy that almost lives up to the words -- a majestic, magical adventure that spans all of McKillip's richly invented world.
"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.