Patricia McKillip’s Riddle Master trilogy is both fascinating and confusing at the same time. I first read this book sometime in my early teens, and I didn’t realize until this re-reading (my third) how much her world-building influenced my early attempts at writing fantasy fiction. McKillilp herself credits Tolkein with the inspiration for her own novels, and at first you can see the influence. But as the novels progress, her book stands on its own.
McKillip’s work of fantasy follows Prince Morgon of Hed, a young prince who seeks the answer to a riddle that has haunted him his whole life. Riddle Masters in McKillip’s land are story tellers. They tell a story in the form of a question or riddle, and once solved, there is a stricture or teaching after it. Students go to a university to become riddle masters. Morgon’s life itself is a riddle. He was born with three stars on his forehead, and his parents find and buy an ancient harp carved with matching stars. They are killed while sailing to return with the harp.
Morgon is driven to find answers, and the whole series follows his question to learn why. What is his identity? Why are all the wizards gone? Why did the High One (the ruler of the land) remain silent, and why did Deth, the High One’s harpist betray Morgon?
It’s a powerful tale told in a strong, poetical voice that sometimes makes it difficult to follow the plot. I’ve had to go back and re-read entire paragraphs to understand exactly what McKillip is trying to say. If you do decide to read this book, take it slowly. It’s the kind of writing that’s so richly detailed that if you miss one word, you could miss an important clue to the plot.
The fantasy novel is set in a land rich with details and interesting characters. People can shape shift into trees or creatures called Vestas, but they act like people, with the same loves, hates and jealousies you’ll recognize in your own world.
Morgon is a perplexing hero. He follows the “reluctant hero” model of storytelling, a man thrust into a challenge he didn’t seek. He has to accept and embrace his destiny even though it means danger to himself and those he loves.
If you enjoy fantasy novels, The Riddle-Master trilogy, brought together in this one volume (link to Amazon above) is an entertaining summer read. It’s an old novel, but a good one for the fantasy fiction nlover.