HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 October 2008
A crumbling mansion with doors to another world, a small seaside town, and a mysterious bell that tolls every day at sunset where no bells are.
With that to describe it, it's no wonder that "The Bell At Sealey Head" is a book by Patricia A. McKillip, spinner of hauntingly lyrical fantasies. And her newest book is no exception -- an exquisite magical mystery full of humour, secret doors, and a sorcerous power that is creeping into Sealey Head.
A mysterious scholar -- Ridley Dow -- comes to Judd's run-down inn one day. He's come there to search for the magical bell that tolls every night.
Elsewhere in Sealey Head, Judd's childhood friend (and love interest) Gwyneth is fending off a boring suitor when she isn't spinning magical tales about that same bell. And up at Aislinn House, Lady Eglantine is dying, and her housemaid Emma is opening magical doors into another world -- a parallel Aislinn house, where the princess Ysabo is caged in a realm of mindless rituals and fearful traditions.
But things begin to change as Lady Eglantine's heir, Miranda Beryl, arrives with her friends and servants, and Ridley Dow's investigations take him into the magical other world. Someone strange and magical is lurking in the town, and old books and half-forgotten legends slowly unveil the sorcerer that cast a spell on the other Aislinn House...
There are actually two magical worlds in "The Bell At Sealey Head" -- one is a coastal town of tree houses, briny ships and folkloric mysteries. The other a dreamlike tangle of crows, rituals and spellbound knights, stuck in traditions with no meaning. It's a credit to McKillip's writing ability that she can make both worlds come alive, in their different ways.
McKillip wraps both worlds -- and all the subplots -- in her ornate rose-petal prose ("Little flecks of snow on the wind, and the last bitter black leaves falling in the lake, where the cold shield and the torn pennant lay..."). And she spins a complex, languidly-paced fantasy story that is far simpler than it seems, with people (good and bad alike) who are not what they seem, and magical passages that appear and vanish. And, of course, a bell ringing where no bells are.
But this is also perhaps McKillip's most humorous book -- she weaves in some mildly comic love triangles, an eccentric woodwitch living in a hollow tree, as well as Daria Sproule's romanticized fantasies ("Not my pirates. Mine would be well-brought-up, sensitive types...").
And the cast is as varied and likable as the settings -- Judd and Gwyneth are likable, down-to-earth types, with Gwyneth as something of an authorial insert. On the other side, Ysabo is an ordinary young girl who is struggling to break, especially since she's being forced to marry a cold knight. The fact that she never figures out what his name is tells you a lot.
It's the supporting characters who are more than they appear -- the seemingly chilly Miss Beryl, her creepy assistant, and the mild housemaid Emma. But it's Ridley Dow who really steals the show -- he's clever, secretive, funny and charming, but also incredibly strong-willed when the situation is dangerous and things are going strangely.
"The Bell At Sealey Head" is only one mystery among many, spun in silky prose and full of lyrical magic. Patricia A. McKillip hit the mark on this one.