Kingfisher (2016), by Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy is perhaps my favourite fantasy series of all times. Not sure if it quite beats Lord of the Rings, but if not it is awfully close. In my early teens, I waited and waited and waited for the next volume to come out… Imagine my surprise then, when Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher showed up in an advertisement for digital editions of fantasy novels. I thought it must be old, and I had just missed its existence until now, but when I got to the reference to cell phones, I had to check the publication date (as you can tell from other posts, I often don’t do that). 2016! So then I had to reassess my response to the text and I figured out what had been disturbing me about it.

In Kingfisher, McKillip shows us the threads of three main characters’ lives, and twists them ever closer together until the final moments, when readers—but not necessarily the players— are shown the answers they have been seeking.

Pierce Oliver is the younger son of a knight and a sorceress who fled the capitol—and her husband and elder son—while pregnant. Pierce has known no other life than cooking with his mother in their isolated home on Cape Mistbegotten. When he meets four knights who carry the shadows of the mythical creatures they were hunting, Pierce has inherited enough of her magic to see the shadows (but not enough to avoid being trapped later in a magical snare). We are immediately plunged into a fantasy world, but the information we are given is not expanded upon; we can merely store it away in isolation, waiting for the moment when it will become meaningful. (This is the first of two issues I had with the story: too many threads of narrative are presented separately to hold in mind before they are woven together into a coherent storyline. Or maybe that’s just me…)

Carrie, chef at the Kingfisher Inn a little to the south of Cape Mistbegotten, is troubled by secrets that no one will discuss. Her father spends his time chanting and roving, seemingly touched in the head by past trauma.

Something had happened. She was uncertain what; everything had changed before she was born. For all the vagueness in everyone’s eyes when she asked, the good fortune might have vanished a century before. Not even her father could come up with a coherent explanation, and he had been there, she knew. (Chapter 2)

Slowly—too slowly for this reader—Carrie begins to unravel the past that haunts the small community at Chimera Bay. That her father, Merle, is a shape-shifter, becoming a wolf and howling his sorrows into the night, only complicates her search for understanding.

Prince Daimon, “as the youngest of Arden’s five children, and illegitimate to boot, … enjoyed a certain amount of lax attention, an absence of scrutiny from his father as long as he did what the king asked” (Chapter 7). This gives Daimon the leisure to pursue his obsession with the captivating Vivien Ravensley—who seems to be both part of the life of the capitol city and yet not—and to resolve the issue of his heredity, partly grounded in his father’s pragmatic world (our world), partly in the mystical land of his mother.

The action of the novel revolves on the axis that is the Kingfisher Inn. Knights quest for a vessel that may or may not exist, that is sacred to the ruthless god Severn or to the life-giving river goddess Calluna in another interpretation of the myth, that can only be recognized by a worthy knight. Kingfisher is, of course, the legend of the Fisher King, but only loosely and far more tangled than the simple Arthurian legend (in any of its many versions). The journeys of “kitchen knight” Pierce (Perceval) and Carrie, daughter of a shape-shifter, and Daimon, heir of both Severn’s and Calluna’s realms, provide the pieces of the puzzle that ultimately fit together to form a whole. From a more prosaic perspective, the quest is a failure; for the reader who has seen the magic, a success. War between the two magical powers is averted, and Holy Grail is returned to its rightful place in the mystical procession. That none of the characters appear to understand how their several stories have led to the restoration of magical balance is a nice touch, I thought, and leaves the reader feeling far more satisfied than might otherwise be the case.

This resetting of legends in the modern world is not uncommon—Tam Lin, for example, is an often retold narrative—but McKillip cannot seem to temper her epic narrative voice, and that which makes reading her Riddle of Stars trilogy so powerfully immersive an experience jars against the inclusion of cell phones, of tuxedoes and chandeliers and mixed pepper aioli, of motorbikes and pickup trucks. Perhaps a deeper knowledge of the legend of the Fisher King would have helped my understanding as I travelled through the narrative, but I’m not sure that should be necessary.

What redeems Kingfisher from all negative consideration is McKillip’s unquestionable talent with characterization. The multitude of characters is balanced, each constructed perfectly to fulfill his or her narrative role. We feel always that we know exactly as much about each person as we should, and that anything else we need will be given us in due time. So in exactly the way the narrative structure is awkward, the characterization is superior. I might have been confused for the first half of the novel, but my interest in the people carried me through the confusion and strengthened my satisfaction in the end.


Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter (2015), by Karen Autio

Kah-Lan takes place on the BC coast, which I have made my home; Karen Autio also has a picture book coming out entitled Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon (2016), which is set in a valley of the Okanagan-Similkameen, where I was born and raised. Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon will tell the history of the area through fictional means and again, beautiful illustrations, this time by Loraine Kemp. Given her choice of subject matter, and the promise of Kah-Lan, Autio is definitely an author I intend to follow.

Kah-Lan: The Adventurous Sea Otter

Autio - Kah-LanKaren Autio’s Kah-Lan has recently been short-listed for the Green Earth Book Award, which seems completely appropriate, given the verisimilitude of Autio’s depiction of the interaction between the young seal pup, Kah-Lan, and his natural environment.

I think what drew me first to Kah-Lan, though, was Sheena Lott’s peaceful watercolour on the cover. Also, I love sea otters. And the BC coast. I was truly delighted when the content of the book lived up to the expectations aroused by the delightful cover. Kah-Lan opens with a lively description of two sea otter pups in a kelp forest, weaving and leaping through the kelp, nipping each other in play. The fluid motion of sea otters is captured perfectly; Kah-Lan and Yamka are real sea otters, with just enough anthropomorphism to satisfy young human readers. When his mother calls him to safety, Kah-Lan is “tired of obeying … he figures he has plenty of time to escape” (11), but then he watches as an orca stuns then consumes an Elder from his raft. The world of Autio’s fictional sea otter contains real-life dangers.

The sea otter pups must balance their play with a necessary obedience to the parental members of the raft and the constant need to feed. Ostensibly just searching for food (as any teen would rationalize disobedience), Kah-Lan gets caught in a riptide and pulled far from his familiar hunting grounds. Once he discovers a greater abundance of food in this new location, he still has to find a way to return to his raft, a daunting challenge given the currents and dangers of the tumultuous waters off the BC coast. Presenting Kah-Lan’s choices as consistent with his sea-otter nature, Autio is able to create a narrative that is exciting, and an animal character that nonetheless replicates human children’s need for both belonging and individuation.

Kim (1901), by Rudyard Kipling

KiplingIn 1901, Rudyard Kipling published his last text dealing with British India. In 1907, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “… i betrakfande af den iaktfagelseförmåga, den ursprungliga inbillningskraft samt den manliga styrka i uppfaffning och skildringskonst, som utmårka denne världsberömde forfaffares skapelser.” (“… on account of the great power of observation, the original conception and also the virile comprehension and art of narration that distinguishes his literary creations.”)  (Nobel Prize Citation).

Kipling-coverKim is arguably Kipling’s only successful full-length novel: The Light that Failed (1890) was a notable critical failure; the moderately more successful The Naulakha (1892) was co-authored with his fiancée’s brother, Wolcott Balestier; Stalky & Co. (1899), is a short-story cycle. Attitudes toward the novel have changed drastically over the years. The basic progression of critical response is that Kim was initially heralded as “the only memorable novel inspired by the subcontinent” (Rubin 14), then derided as the work of a “colonial and a racist” (Murari, qtd. in Moore-Gilbert Kipling 42), and is now back in the spotlight as fundamental to a comprehension of India, and what it is to be Indian (Moore-Gibert, “I am”). This was evident when I tried to teach Kim at the university level: the responses ranged from adoration to derision by way of incomprehension. It surprised me greatly that the language of the novel would be beyond third-year students, but there it is. Those who did complete the novel either loved it or were offended by the Victoria attitudes therein. Still, it remains one of my favourite novels for children, in the august company of Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (1875), L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), and Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars (1976-79) series (can we count Lord of the Rings as children’s books? And there are certainly others…)


Kim and his Lama, from a carving by Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling

So what is it that makes Kim stand out from Kipling’s other works, from other children’s novels of Empire, or indeed most of children’s literature at the time? For me, it is partially the large cast of fully developed characters, all balanced by their various relationships with the central figure, young Kimball O’Hara. It is partially, too, the deep understanding Kipling has of the land that Kim travels through, and the intrigue of The Great Game that is played there: the contest between Russia and England for control over (uncontrollable) Central Asia. Kipling’s inclusion of historical facts is not great, but his knowledge of the country, the cultures, and the political machinations of the British Empire in India certainly is. Kim has a boys’-own flare without the overt jingoism that accompanies so many texts of Empire, especially at the turn of the 20th century. Not only are the characters in Kim carefully and deeply crafted, but Kipling presents a vast array of religions and cultures, all treated with the same balance between humour and respect. While the Bengali Hurree Chunder Mookerjee is a source of comedy, he is also a loyal friend, and an effective and dedicated spy for the British government. The Afghani Mahbub Ali, too, is presented with respect for his strength (of both body and character) and his unquestionable affection for Kim. The Buddhist Teshoo Lama, both naïve and holy, is perhaps the most revered of characters—by both Kim and Kipling. The other two religious figures—the Anglican Reverend Arthur Bennett and the Catholic Father Victor—are presented without excessive disparagement, given their [in Kim’s view] unhelpful desires to educate Kim in the ways of their separate religions. Kipling’s “fallen” women—the formidable Woman of Shamlegh, who is “Lispeth” in Kipling’s earlier story of that name; the widowed Woman of Kulu who heals Kim; and the Shimla prostitute who helps Kim disguise himself—are all presented as essentially moral, strong women—a representation not accorded many fictional women, of any ethnicity, at the time. Character, plot, and setting weave together in an irresistible narrative web. We come to love both Kim and his Lama, to respect the integrity and loyalty of all the players of the Great Game. If there is an underlying imperialist self-aggrandisment (which I cannot deny), it is (in my opinion) forgivable as a representation of the real ethos of British India at the time.


Moore-Gilbert, B. J.  Kipling and “Orientalism. London: Croom Helm, 1986.

Moore-Gilbert, Bart J. “I am Going to Rewrite Kipling’s Kim: Kipling and Postcolonialism.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 37.2 (2002): 39-58.

Rubin, David.  After the Raj: British Novels of India Since 1947.  Hanover & London: UP of New England, 1986.

Huenemann, Karyn. “From Lispeth to The Woman of Shamlegh: Rudyard Kipling, India, and Indian Women.” IUP Journal of Commonwealth Literature 1.1 (2009): 22-46.

Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910), by L. M. Montgomery

Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910) and The Blue Castle (1926) are considered L. M. Montgomery’s two “adult” novels, so I had not thought to review them here, until I recently re-read Kilmeny, and was unpleasantly surprised at how trite I found it as an adult reader.  My recollection is of its beauty, its human compassion, its ability to reveal all that is noble and moral and strong in its characters. I first read it as an idealistic teenonly 15 years oldand that doubtless influenced my interpretation of the power of the text, but there is certainly more going on than just my own progression from teen-aged idealism into a more jaded adult reality. Kilmeny of the Orchard does present characters who are noble, and moral, and deserve emulation. That I no longer identify with themnor honestly believe that such people do or ever did existspeaks not only to my own maturation process, but also to the stark discrepancy between the period in which Kilmeny was written, and our contemporary world. We have become cynical, as a society. This is understandable, of course, and I need not delineate the numerous historical events that have led us from the idealism of the Edwardian period to our modern state of social angst. I do want to point out, though, that Kilmeny is an artefact of an earlier, less troubled historical moment. We do not need to look so far as modernor worse post-modernliterature to validate this assumption: The Blue Castle, written only 16 years later, shows distinct characteristics of a shift from the Edwardian idealism that fed Kilmeny to the post-war Modernism that began the rocky road to our current literary sensibilities. Even L. M. Montgomery, steeped as she was in the magical world of her fictional Prince Edward Island, could not escape the social and cultural ethos of her times. It is significant that The Blue Castle is set in Muskoka, not Prince Edward Island.

All that being said, Kilmeny of the Orchard, while it fails to satisfy the emotional needs of a 48-year-old reader in 2012, will remain one of my all-time favourite love stories. The purity of Eric’s love for Kilmeny, his straight-forward path towards claiming her as his own, his love’s ability to trump all obstacles, all speak to the simplicity of Montgomery’s perception of the needs of her readers at the time. The parallel between her 1910 audience and a naïve teenager in the 1970s is interesting, but causes me to wonder if there are any readers out there todayof any agewho would even be satisfied, never mind enthralled, by the romantic tale of the mute Kilmeny and idealistic Eric, who win each other’s hearts against all odds.