... is two very good books, and one novel that's a real mess. "The Riddlemaster of Hed," "Heir of Sea and Fire," and "Harpist in the Wind."
Forty pages into Riddlemaster I was thrilled to be in the presence of the anti-Rowling. By then this had happened:
We'd been introduced to Morgon, Prince of the island of Hed, a peaceful farming kingdom. Morgon's parents have died mysteriously. We learn he has the "land rule," a mystic sense of what's going on in his kingdom, and that his brother Eliard is his heir. He has a sister, Tristan, who's 11 and isn't coping too well with her parents' deaths. Morgon studied riddle mastery at the College of Riddles in Caithnard, and sometime after his parents' deaths, he played a riddle game with a thousand year old ghost ... and won, and lived, and escaped with a famous crown. Which is now hidden under his bed and his sister Tristan has found it.
So Morgon fights with Eliard over having risked his life to get the crown, and then the High One's Harpist, Deth, shows up on Hed, and Morgon and Deth take a ship to the mainland, to the College of the Riddle Masters. There we meet Morgon's friend Rood, who's the brother of Raederle; Raederle was promised in marriage, by her shapechanging father, to the man who defeated the thousand year old ghost ... which is convenient, since Morgon and Raederle love one another anyway.
Morgon and Deth inform everyone at the college that Morgon won the crown from the ghost, and they head off on a ship together to go see Raederle ... but along the way the ship's crew vanishes, the ship cracks apart, Morgon is nearly drowned and awakens with his memory gone.
He's rescued by a solitary hermit, Astrin, who turns out to be the land-heir of Ymris, and now lives in exile among the ruins of the great city of the long-vanished Earth Masters, on Wind Plain. And then two assassins attack and try to kill Astrin and Morgon, but are killed instead ...
Her text is beautiful. This one paragraph would have taken JK Rowling two chapters:
"He retrieved his pack from the chaos of Rood's room and bade the Masters farewell. The sky darkened slowly as he and the harpist took the long road back to the city; on the rough horns of the bay the warning fires had been lit; tiny lights from homes and taverns made random stars against the well of darkness. The tide boomed and slapped against the cliffs, and an evening wind stirred, strengthened, blowing the scent of salt and night. The trade ship stirred reslessly in the deep water as they boarded; a loose sail cupped the wind, taut and ghostly under the moon. Morgon, standing at the stern, watched the lights of the harbor ripple across the water and vanish."
Aside from the trade ship stirring restlessly, there's not a word in that paragraph I'd change. And that's true of nearly all her text.
The third book disappoints, though. The first two novels are character driven -- we follow Morgon as he learns his destiny, and then Raederle as she learns hers. They both take their lumps.
Harpist in the Wind has a lot more magic in it -- Morgon and Raederle have grown powerful, but they have enemies as powerful as themselves, and the mechanisms of plot nearly swamp the novel. And the things that McKillip does superbly the rest of the series falter here -- her characters do things because the plot requires it of them, not because it's organic to who they are. Morgon is driven, enraged, possessed at the end of the second novel: midway through the third, he wanders off and chills out for a while. Her beautiful language suffers -- instead of saying things once and trusting the reader to pay attention, she says them repeatedly: say things three times, the editors in New York will tell you. Probably someone told McKillip that, back in the day -- the editors are wrong on this one. You can't help inattentive readers and shouldn't try. (In a long series, sure -- but Harpist repeats itself in-novel.)
The ending is a very nice sequence of powerful forces squaring off, and she pays it off well enough.
In the book's introduction, McKillip says that at one time these were her favorite works, but no longer -- I'm not suprised. I'm looking forward to reading some of her later works -- she was a remarkable talent even when she wrote this, and I have to think she got better. Some of the false notes she hit here -- the unfortunate use of various homophones for names, as one example, stuff like "Hel" and "Deth" -- are things I suspect a more mature writer would have avoided.
Two very good books, and overall a good trilogy -- not Earthsea, but then, not much is. I'd stick it on the shelf next to "The Dark Is Rising," which has its own huge strengths to go along with structural and quality issues.
I've been revisiting my source material, the stuff that inspired me to write in the first place, for close to 2 years now. I'm close to done -- haven't yet finished the Travis McGee series, but I'm down to the last 6-7 books, and then I'm going to re-read Gregory McDonald's Fletch novels -- and that's about it. Maybe one quick pass through "Fear and Loathing." :-)