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.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967), by E.L. Konigsburg

Feeling put-upon and ignored as the eldest sibling, Claudia takes her younger brother with her and runs away. Not liking hardship, they run to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, rather than to the woods, as Jamie first assumes. There, they encounter a statue attributed to Michelangelo, and Claudia becomes captivated, needing to discover the truth about the statue for herself.

While a little slow-paced, this novel is superb in not stretching the possibilities in two young children who have run away from home. What they do could have happened; thus, the reader is able to engage completely with the mystery and the stresses the children encounter. The ending is hidden from the reader until the end, then well resolved.

I was not so very entranced with the novel, which (despite my personal opinion) is heralded as one of the true classics of American children’s literature. It won the Newbery Award for Children’s Literature in 1968 and, as the Wikipedia entry notes, “in 2012 it was ranked number seven among all-time children’s novels in a survey published by School Library Journal.” But then, I didn’t like Norton Juster‘s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), either, despite the language play that normally would appeal. But there you have it: It’s not you; it’s me.

Howl’s Moving Castle (1996), by Diana Wynne Jones

I suppose it isn’t surprising that when I searched for the cover art for this book, that most of what appeared were images from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2004 anime version. I first saw the film when I was attending the annual conference for the Children’s Literature Association in Normal, Illinois, in 2008. Opinions were mixed, but the general consensus was that, while it wasn’t really the same as the novel, it was a good movie. Diana Wynne Jones herself was pleased with it—“It was wonderful. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone before who thinks like I do. He saw my books from the inside out.”—so I feel justified in liking the movie in a completely different way from the book.

Simplification of novels in adaptation to film is often necessary; Miyazaki does much more than that. Other reviewers have gone through the differences more meticulously, so I’ll just note that, rereading the novel, I was sufficiently pleased to see the little consistencies in character and incidentals—such as the bakery employee moving the boxes aside and poking his head through to call to Lettie, or Sophie cooking the breakfast on Calcifer’s head—that I could forgive the more drastic changes in plot, such as the simplification of the political intrigue and the introduction of the entire war theme.

I recall a quotation from Wynne Jones (that of course I can no longer find) I which she said, admiringly, in response to an objection about the movie: “It’s Hayao Mizazaki: of course there are airships; he has to have airships.” She approves, too, of Miyazaki’s architectural aesthetics: “What I like is the way that Miyazaki has translated [the castle] into a thing of fantasy.” There is a quotation from Ursula K. LeGuin to Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son, but that is another story) about his version of The Tales of Earthsea that in my mind I attribute sometimes to Diana Wynne Jones, as it parallels her overall impression of Howls’ Moving Castle: “It is not my book; it is your movie. It is a good movie.

But on to the actual novel, which contains far more magic than does the movie. The opening lines immerse the reader in a fairy-tale world:

In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to win your fortunes. (9)

Wynne Jones then goes on to delineate all the ways in which Sophie both does and does not conform to fairy-tale tropes. As the novel progresses, we watch as those tropes are subverted and avoided through the will of the characters. The metaphor is unavoidable: in both Ingary and our world (Howl, it turns out, is really from Wales), it is your choices and strength of character that really control your destiny, not the expectation of the world around you. Sophie’s sisters Lettie and Martha are the first examples: sent by their mother to apprentice to a bakery and a witch respectively, the girls learn enough magic to switch places undetected; for Lettie, the middle child, is the adventurous one and Martha, the youngest and therefore assumed to be destined for great things, only wants to find a husband and have babies. Taking their futures into their own hands, both end up happy.

Granted it is not so easy for Sophie, but as she is our protagonist, that is to be expected. Accosted by Wizard Howl for a moment on the streets, Sophie earns the wrath of the Witch of the Waste, how curses her with premature old-age. But Sophie is a “hale old woman” (55), and moves steadily on with her life, remarking on her new perspective as an old person. The Howl she met in the streets, intimidatingly older, “is only a child in his twenties” (58) to Old Sophie, his “new cleaning lady” (59). Her artificial maturity gives her a confidence to explore who she really is: “It was odd, as a girl Sophie would have shrivelled in embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief” (66).

As Sophie settles in to her life in the castle, she becomes slowly more aware of her own magical powers—something the reader was made aware of earlier, and Howl recognizes immediately. The politics of magic and government are twisted together, and Sophie seems barely to keep up with the machinations of Howl’s professional life, not to mention the fall-out from his previous romantic entanglements. Her growing belief in herself helps her to stand up to the forces that threaten to overwhelm her—Howl included—and that strength is ultimately key in creating a stable life for both Howl and herself. Unlike in the movie, Sophie has no illusions about Howl’s true nature; there is no scene where they fly off in an airship together. Sophie’s pragmatic acceptance of their affection for each other, despite their faults, is far more satisfying and believable, as befits a fairy tale with an underlying agenda of overthrowing fairy tale tropes.

The Mask that Sang (2016), by Susan Currie

This review was first published in a shorter version in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 22.1.

The Mask that Sang (2016)

currie-mask-that-sang

The Mask that Sang opens with Cass running from bullies, only to come home to learn that her mother had been fired from her sketchy job at a diner for standing up for another girl against the bullying boss. While suggests a message about bullying being endemic, the story is really about how Cass discovers her Native heritage.

Cass’s mother, Denise, has “been in over twenty foster homes” since she was given up by her mother at birth (10); as teen mother herself, she chose not to make that decision, and has raised Cass in a loving emotional security that transcends their poverty. When her dead mother’s lawyers track Denise down, she is adamant that she will have nothing to do with the house and money she has been left. Cass, however, does not carry the same emotional baggage, and talks her mother into accepting the legacy: the home and financial security Cass has always dreamed of. Wrapped up in tissue in one of the drawers, calling to her with a “mischievous purr” was an Iroquios false-face mask. The mask is responsible for the soft voices Cass has been hearing: “The hum was more like a song now … Maybe it was a voice in the wind, maybe it was several voices” (22) telling her how happy she will be in the house, coaxing her towards the drawer to be discovered.

The mask sings to her; it hums in approval when she stands up for a Native classmate, Degan Hill; it “vibrated with regret, with sorrow” (56) when she inadvertently hurts him; it gives her strength to stand up for what she knows is right. Befriending Degan brings Cass into the lives of his Native family, where she learns the stories of false face masks, and their power. When her mother unknowingly sells it with other unwanted household items, Cass and Degan struggle to retrieve it, first from a pawn shop, then from its purchaser, and ultimately from the school bully, Ellis, who turns out (stereotypically) to be dealing with issues of his own.

Despite the trope of the privileged-yet-bullied bully, the ingenuity of Cass and Degan, and their strength in standing up to Ellis’s father racism and illogical position vis-à-vis the mask, gives readers a sense both of the powerlessness of the child against unreasonable adults and the need to stand for what you believe in regardless. In a rather simplistic and idealized dénouement, their strength gives the abused Ellis strength; he returns the mask to its rightful home, and “generations of voices sang that it was home at last” (185).

Its rightful home, of course, is with someone from the Cayuga Nation, where it was created. That the mask sings to Cass is the first obvious clue. The method of delivery of the truth of Cass’s heritage, rather like Denise’s fortuitous inheritance, is rather contrived. A letter that had been left to Denise—which she threw out but Cass rescued—tells the story of Denise’s mother, a Cayuga girl, neglected by her widowed father and sent to Residential school, who (like Denise) chose better for her infant daughter. The letter itself is little more than a narrative list of all possible injuries experienced by Native children in care of the government, and reads more like an outline from a history lesson than a letter from a caring nurse. After she gives up her baby, Denise’s mother “traveled in search of answers, working as she went … she visited other countries and sought out quiet, holy places. She learned to meditate. She studied about great religions, and explored what it felt like to practice them. When she finally came home, she was ready to look at her own traditions…” (174). This passage, especially, rang false for me. I could not reconcile the previous description of her treatment with the resources necessary for such travel and learning, “working as she went” notwithstanding.

What I find troubling is that the Turtle Island Healing Centre that Denise’s fictional mother founded does possibly exist. There is a Turtle Island Healing Center in Flagstaff, Arizona (although that seems an unlikely candidate), and Turtle Island Healing and Wellness, part of the Turtle Island Native Network online, is a Canadian organization. As “Turtle Island” is a term for the world in some First Nations’ creation myths (significantly, for this story, Iroquois), it is also possible that the author has created a generic title for a Native healing centre. If the story of Denise’s mother is based on the founder of the Canadian program, on the other hand, a more careful description of her past—and perhaps an afterword explaining the historical reality—would be greatly helpful. As it stands, the lecturing tone of the historical information overshadows the delightful story of Cass’s life, and we are left wanting.