Friday, March 23, 2007

More Solstice, Less Wood

Patricia A. McKillip once described something as being "as beautiful as a fragment of ancient poetry." That's an apt description of her whole body of work -- lyrical, enchanting, romantic, full of haunting imagery, evocative, elliptical. Her prose is lapidary, many-layered, full of symbols, elusive and allusive. Nothing is ever fully explained in a McKillip story; there are hints, glimmers, like the flash of fish in a pool, but nothing solid to hang onto, nothing the reader can be sure of. There are always mysteries left in the shadows.

Many critics have noted McKillip's penchant for riddles, most notably in her early books The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and the Riddle-Master trilogy. Indeed, the whole theme of the latter is "Answer the unanswered riddle." But even when the riddles are answered, questions remain. Who were the Earth-Masters? Where did their rivals come from, and why were they driven to destroy? How and why did humans rise in the place of these mighty peoples? We know fairly well why Morgon was chosen to be the Earth-Masters' heir, but what of Raederle? McKillip never tells us these things, even indirectly. This elliptical quality adds to our sense that each tale is but a piece of an infinitely greater saga, in the way that each Greek myth offers only one facet of a god's complex nature or that any one romance can never tell the whole story of King Arthur and his knights.

Even later works like Od Magic, where the framework is disappointingly slight, sustain a weight of mystery. What are the strange creatures sheltering on the mountain? Where did they come from and what powers do they possess? Questions like that nibble at the mind long after the book is closed.

Yet at times I have longed for McKillip to be more straightforward, to leave less to the reader's imagination and ability to piece clues together. Yes, yes, the shadow city of Ombria is changeable and elusive, but is it real? What actually happens to Corbett Lynn? How did Atrix Wolfe's actions trap Saro, how do they free her, and what does she go on to become?

So is it wrong of me to be sorry that my wish was finally answered? Solstice Wood is McKillip's latest novel, a sequel of sorts to Winter Rose. Three hundred years later, Corbett Lynn and Rois Melior's descendents gather at Lynn Hall to mourn the passing of Liam Lynn and anoint his heir to guard the passageways between our world and Faerie. As always, McKillip provides a rich array of characterization. There is the prickly and skittish Sylvia, afraid of her heritage, afraid to love; the gangly, unfinished Tyler, still mourning the death of his father and freaked out by his mother's remarriage; the indomitable Gran, zealously guarding the borders of the Otherworld, shouldering the burden despite Liam's nonchalance; the ladies of the Fiber Guild (very similar to the circle of wizards McKillip uses in her story "The Witches of Junket"); and the ageless, changeless, implacable Fairy Queen, who in the end is none of those things.

Ambiguity is a theme of the book: "Maybe. Maybe not. That's the point," is repeated several times. But perhaps by voicing it so clearly, the book banishes the ambiguity it's striving for. Everything is out in the open, on the surface. The prose, while still beautifully crafted, is straightforward and linear, with no wandering byways, no pockets of denser meaning. All the questions are answered: why did Sylvia run away? who was her father? what happened to Tyler? what makes Leith Rowan so special? what happened to Owen's wife? what does the Fairy Queen want? There's nothing hidden here, nothing beckoning the reader on to further revelations.

It's as though McKillip, like her characters, is bringing down the barriers between reality and Faerie. But in opening the way so clearly to Faerie, she removes the mystery, the wonder, the enchantment that has always drawn us there. So I take back my wish: Patricia, turn your lamps down low again, and let me have the shadows back.

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