Thursday, August 2, 2007

Patricia McKillip's Riddle Master series ...

... 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." :-)


Pagan Topologist said...

Dan, I still do not understand why everyone seems to want to tighten up prose and shorten works of fiction. If I enjoy a story, and especially the characters, I want to spend a lot of time with them. Most books are too short for my tastes. For this reason, I love Jordan's Wheel of Time, for example.

David Bellamy

Dan Moran said...

I gave up on Wheel Of Time around the 6th volume -- tastes differ, which is fair.

I'm not anti-long-fiction ... I'm pro-conciseness. Lonesome Dove is 1,000 pages in paperback and it's not too long: things happen on every page.
I know this because I've been opening that book at random for close to 15 years now, reading away -- and I've never hit a scene that made me want to skip ahead. (Though I do in the miniseries, interestingly -- I usually skip the early scenes with July Johnson and Peach.)

Plenty of stories leave you wanting more -- others are the right length -- others are too long. I'll take right length, too short, and too long, in that order.

MLL said...

I read The Long Run way before I read Fear and Loathing. Before I was an HST fan.

So when The Attorney says to Duke "As your attorney I advise you to rent a very fast car with no top." I'm thinking, just for a minute, "Hey, this guy is a DKM fan!"

Then I did the math and discovered that I'm not the only HST fan who's also a Trent the Uncatchable fan.

Lotta fanning going on.

It's warm out.

I might give the Wheel Of Time a spin, when:
A: Robert Jordan dies, almost guaranteeing (L Ron Hubbard, anyone?) that the series is done.


B: I'm doing a long stretch in prison and my time has metastized from a commodity to a liability.

Cause, damn, that guy just keeps on going, doesn't he?

When I wanna get inspired to write, I read Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and Steve Barnes' Charisma. What a stud.

Dan, what do you think of Deadwood?

Steve Perry said...

Hmm. Between Travis McGee and Lonesome Dove -- the best novel ever about How Men Think -- those are some great influences for a writer. How to do it short, how to do it long ...

McGee caught me early and I stayed with him until the end.

Wasn't any Black Border for McGee stashed in a trunk, by the way. Before he died, I exchanged a couple letters with JDMac, and after he passed away, with Dan Rowan. MacDonald let the rumor stand because he thought it was funny, least that's was what Rowan said, and they were great buds. There was a book of their letters published, which is how I came to contact Rowan.

My first novel (and most of the subsequent ones) owe a lot to Travis, and I was pleased to tell MacDonald so before he died.

Dan Moran said...

You're lucky, Steve -- mostly I've met the writers I wanted to meet, but Heinlein and MacDonald escaped me. Hunter Thompson didn't -- met him toward the end of his life, and he was an act. A brilliant one, though, and Fear and Loathing is, I think, almost true.

I have a mystery series I've been working on -- the first two novels were "A Symphony in Black" and "The Hotel California." I've collapsed the pair of them into one novel to get Scope ... and the resulting book is called "Hotel California."

I'm sorry about losing that first title, though -- it was another of MacDonald's alleged Travis Dies titles.

Mll, haven't seen Deadwood. Looks like my kind of thing, so I'll probably catch up some year.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you. I think you've covered this work quite well. I was probably inattentive -- I don't remember knowing all that in the first 40 pages the first time I read these.

Jason said...

McKillip's writing has grown stronger over the years. Gotta love a writer who can title a book "The Throme of the Erroll of Sherril" and pay off. Her economy of writing still works to paint vivid pictures in my mind, though doubtless different pictures than anyone else has. That's what appeals to me about writing down the bones and little else; the reader gets to put their own richly-imagined flesh on them.