The Riddle of Stars, a trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip

McKillip-map

It is best to review these three titles as a trilogy á la Lord of the Rings, rather than three separate novels. Series fiction has become so popular in the children’s and young adult literary world that we have forgotten the joy of a good trilogy, which combines the longevity of narrative that series fiction attempts to supply with a story that is well structured and coherent: with a beginning, a middle (climax, change of scene, rising action, another climax, another change of scene and rising action), and an end (a final climax, dénouement, and ultimately great satisfaction for the reader). Series fiction, on the other hand, often lacks the solid structure that leads to reader satisfaction: because it is written without a solid plan in the initial stages, it seldom forms as cohesive and satisfying a narrative. Don’t remind me that Dickens (among others) wrote his novels piecemeal this way, weekly, changing his plot to satisfy his readers’ opinions as he went along… I firmly believe he would have been even greater had he not suffered under such constraints!

To continue. I have not read The Riddle of Stars trilogy since I was a teen, but I cannot think why not: it was one of my absolute favourites, second perhaps only to Lord of the Rings. When I picked it up again last week, I remembered why I loved it so much. Even though I remember the essential plot, I can no longer remember the details, and the story and the world McKillip has created pulled me deep within: I ran with the vesta; I became a tree; I wept with Raederle… No trilogy or series since this—except perhaps K.V. Johansen’s Warlocks of Talverdin—has constructed for me such a complete, satisfying world, mythology, and backstory to the current narrative.

McKillip 1   In The Riddlemaster of Hed (1976), we meet Morgan, Prince of Hed. Morgan’s title means that he is bound irrevocably and immutably by a deep magic to his land. Not until his death—and then equally irrevocably—does his rule pass to his land-heir. But Morgan is also a Riddle Master, sent away from his agrarian homeland to study in the city of Caithnard with students from all the lands in the realm. He is torn between his identity as ruler of Hed—a land and culture that he truly understands and loves—and the three stars on his forehead that appear to mark him as something other than a ruler of cattle, pigs, and their keepers. Ultimately, he has to choose whether to pursue or abandon the riddle that is his identity. In McKillip’s world, philosophy, history, and belief are both bound and explained by the riddles the learnèd ask of each other, and their answers. Morgan has been trained in this world as much as his princedom, but there are riddles that even he cannot answer. He journeys north to Erlenstar Mountain, to seek the High One of the Realm, the only one who can answer the Riddle of his Stars, and his identity. En route he meets and befriends a number of rulers of other kingdoms; these friendships  will serve him well in his future struggles. But when he reaches the apparent end of his quest, the final words we are given are “Oh, no!” There his tale—at least in this volume—ends.

McKillip 2
In Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), we return south to Raederle, Morgan’s intended, and the political struggles in which the world is embroiled now that the Prince of Hed has disappeared. While Raederle’s father seeks Morgan in his own way, Raederle and the two other women who love Morgan—the warrior Lyra and Morgan’s sister Tristan—abandon the pattern of their lives to seek him, and the answers to the fate that awaits their world. Parallelling Morgan’s search for identity, Raederle seeks to understand her own heritage, to learn why her wise and loving father made an oath to marry her to the man who could win a contest of Riddles with the shade of Aum of Peven, a great King and Riddle Master. She begins to comprehend her true nature, and to fear it, as much as—or more than—she fears losing Morgan.

McKillip 3

In Harpist in the Wind (1979), while Raederle has learned her true name and nature, Morgan still struggles to determine who he is, and why the harpist Deth, whom he loved, had betrayed him so cruelly. The shape changers who pursue him to the corners of the realm, the evil Riddle Master who seeks to destroy him, even his own nature seems to battle against the peace he seeks for himself and his world. Slowly he integrates his abilities with self-knowledge, battling against self-doubt, until in the final moment—almost too late—he learns his true name, and his real place in the natural order of his world.

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