Note: Throughout July, I’ll be re-reading and reviewing books by Patricia McKillip. While I don’t think there are any huge spoilers below, I can’t swear that there are none, so tread with caution if that’s something you’re concerned about.
As discussed yesterday, the Riddle-Master trilogy–or Riddle of Stars–is Patricia McKillip’s entry into the epic fantasy subgenre. When I first read it in 2008, I noted that it felt like “a bit like a grown up version of the Prydain Chronicles” and I stand by that, although I suspect she was writing in response to Tolkien as well.
While I felt somewhat frustrated with The Riddle-Master of Hed, I found that I really enjoyed Heir of Sea and Fire. This is mostly due to one thing: we switch main characters, from Morgon to Raederle. And I love Raederle! She’s impulsive and stubborn and loyal, and when it comes down to it she knows her own heart.
This book begins, in a nice echo of the opening of Riddle-Master, with the arrival of ships and a family argument. As with Morgon, Eliard, and Tristan, I really liked the complex warmth, humor, and tensions of Mathom’s family. The tensions are largely because Mathom never tells anyone anything if he can help it, and then he leaves An to go to Erlenstar mountain after word comes that Morgon is dead and the land-rule has passed to Eliard.
But Raederle doesn’t wait to find out what has happened. She convinces her father’s ship-master and Lyra of Herun to go to Erlenstar Mountain with her. And they are joined by Tristan, Morgon’s sister. None of them are entirely convinced that Morgon is dead, and even if he is, they want to find out why. Deth, the High One’s harpist and emissary, has disappeared as well, and they want answers.
So, as I was reading this one, I wrote down: “Hmmm, so I like this one and it’s all the women. Hmmm.” I like what I like, I guess, and although their quest is defined by Morgon, I find all of the women McKillip writes in this book to be complex & interesting–and perhaps most of all, allowed to sometimes make mistakes without being judged it for it. I’m curious–if anyone knows the history of epic fantasy better than I do, are there any earlier examples of women as major pov characters? And especially any groups of women doing questy things? This is the earliest I could find.
At any rate, a lot of this book revolves around Raederle’s struggle with her heritage. One of her ancestors was a shape-changer, the same deadly enemy that the realm is now fighting against. And her own power and desires come in part from this shape-changer, Ylon, who had an unhappy life and a sad destiny. How can Raederle accept her power and her heritage without becoming the thing that she hates and fears, that Morgon hates and fears?
One of the things that McKillip does nicely, I think, is show how it’s not just Morgon whose life is changed forever. Nearly everyone ends up involved in the story, in one way or another. Raederle is one who clearly falls into this category, whose journey into power and into herself echoes Morgon’s to a certain extent. But she also is herself, and she is more willing to use what she has than Morgon, who wishes so much to stand aside from what he holds.
There’s a theme of trust running through these books: Deth asks Morgon to trust him “beyond logic, beyond reason, beyond hope” just before betraying him. Raederle must learn to trust herself, to open herself to the heritage she does not want to accept as well as the one she does. But Deth’s betrayal also has echoes: Raederle says to Deth at one point, “Did you think you were betraying only Morgon?” and it’s clear that for her, the personal hurt is nearly as great as that she feels on Morgon’s behalf.
And there’s quite a bit about legends as well: the High One, the legends of Lungold and the wizards; even the riddles which may be simply parables but which may have also happened. As Deth says, “Legends have a grim way of twisting into truth,” and part of this book is about discovering which is which.
So yes–in many ways, Heir of Sea and Fire is my favorite book of the trilogy. I find Raederle and her reactions to her heritage, the relationship she has with Lyra and Tristan, and her determination to find out the truth to be engaging and compelling. Perhaps most of all, she acts where Morgon tends to react (at least in the first book) and I found this to be much nicer to read about.
Book source: personal library
Book information: 1977, Atheneum; adult fantasy