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.