Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Riddle Game

Years ago I decided that I wanted to read the classic novels of modern fantasy. Being the kind of person who likes to organize with lists I thought I'd put together a list of the books that were most highly regarded in the genre. And being the kind of person who wastes a lot of time with pointless research, I put together a long list. Several actually. Not too long ago I found myself revisiting one of those old lists and realized that I had worked my way through quite a bit of it, but I still hadn't read The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip. It is the first book of a trilogy now collected in one volume called Riddle-Master.

Riddle-Master is an avowedly Tolkienian work. It starts with the standard map of the realm. It takes place in a vaguely medieval world of kings and farmers and wizards and such. The hero comes from a quiet, idyllic, rural place, set aside from the wider world of swords and sorcery. The tropes of western folktales abound, including the hero with a hidden destiny, magical objects, shape-changers, and of course lots of traveling on that map from page one.

I probably would have been pretty frustrated if I had read this when it first came out. Like Tolkien the three novels do not really stand on their own. They are really three distinct parts of one story. The first book ends in a cliffhanger. Had I not had the rest of the story in my hand I probably would not have continued. The Riddle-Master of Hed was a good read, but not all that special. It's in the second book things begin to really take off. In the first book we meet Morgon, a prince of the island of Hed. He's the eponymous riddle-master and the guy with the hidden destiny. As the ruler of Hed he possesses a magical awareness of his land called the land-rule. Each country in the realm has a ruler who has this connection to his territory. He is mystically aware of the land and all things living on it. As the story continues Morgon begins to discover other magical powers. He does not fully understand these things and neither does the reader. As we travel around the land we learn bits and pieces of the meaning behind things and the hidden motives of the various powers swirling around our hero. It takes a long time to unfold and in the process we develop a fuller picture of an interesting fantasy world and magical system.

McKillip weaves some magic of her own with this complex tale featuring memorable characters, drama, adventure, poetic descriptive passages, and a nice love story. I'd recommend it for fans of high fantasy only, but for those fans this is a certified must read.

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