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The Forgotten Beasts of EldThe Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A . . . parable – yeah, that’s close enough – about the sorceress on an isolated mountain the king she raises and the man she falls in love with, and how she is drawn back down into the world of men and politics and power and greed.

This is a hard book. It has this precise, chilly sort of narration, like it’s dissecting this story even as the characters act it out with dramatic, stylized gestures. The sorceress can call creatures to her – a black swan, a dragon – and bind them to her. The book is about that, about the power reaching out and grabbing you, about how it hurts you and makes you angry. And how that’s what family is, too, and love.

A hard book. As in hard edges.

It also does a really good job with portraying a magical assault on someone’s mind as a kind of rape. The word never passes anyone’s lips, but it’s there in the fundamentals of the story, in her horror, in her thirst for revenge, in the instantaneous way everyone around her understands the magnitude of what was threatened.

I have . . . complicated feelings about the way a lot of modern fantasy – and more often modern critics – gloss particular kinds of magical attacks as rape. Or just flat out say they're categorically the same, I think is what I'm really talking about. I can’t articulate why this bothers me . . . something about using acts of real world violation and degradation as a shorthand to explain why this fantasyland psychic assault from atop Mount Doom is bad? Because not all invasions of the self are the same tenor of subjective horror, and piling all these psychic and symbolic-magic assaults into the category of rape muddies the waters on a word we can’t even get everyone to line up and agree on in the real world? A friend of mine recently sat next to a guy on a plane who believed as a matter of course that a prostitute could never be raped. Not the point, just, it stuck with me. I don’t know. Obviously thoughts still very unformed on this.

My actual point being, this book maneuvered that very well, and made me feel the horror and the violation. Let the characters like her husband respond in the way they would to rape, but also let the act be the weird, out-of-our-world magical crime that it was.

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The Bell at Sealey HeadThe Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A sweet little slip of a book about a house in a tiny seaside town, and pantry doors that open to the house in another world under a spell, and an innkeeper who loves books, and country romances, and a bell ringing every day at sunset that only the people who listen can hear.

Pretty. This book is partly about rituals – lighting candles, getting married to the proper person, a bell that rings at the same time every day – and how important it is to be aware of the rules you’re following. I read most of this book on a quiet Sunday, alone, doing laundry. The book would step into one of its recitations of quotidian magic, “light that lantern. Close the door, and lock it. Leave the key. Turn one page of the book at the top of the tower.” I would think, “sort the whites. Pour detergent. Normal, easy care, delicates.” McKillip always has a different take on magic, and this one is domestic, busy-handed, frightening if followed blindly but very powerful if done mindfully. It was a good day.

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This book does have a plot, but I think it's more effective to just lay the pieces out: Terra killed over a thousand people seven years ago, and now she's locked in her strange, inexpressible visions on a prison colony; a musician who reads minds sometimes; a cop looking for someone who can explain the unspeakably horrible; a curious scientist with a machine that can project thoughts, who takes it upon himself to wonder if Terra might be sane after all.

So I keep reading McKillip, because -- well, I don't actually know why, except that every second or third book is strange in an engrossing way, not just in an opaque way. This is that book, only more so. It's kind of about what sanity is, kind of about language, kind of about symbology more broadly, kind of about forgiveness. It's an intense, mysterious little mechanism that got into my head and did unmeasurable, odd things in there.

I don't generally like opaque books, and this one isn't quite that . . . exactly. It's doing a whole lot of things; a few too many, actually, and I don't just say that because I didn't get it all. But McKillip managed such richness in writing and image, spun out on a thread of unspooling momentum, that I enjoyed the hell out of watching this book do it's thing, even though I don't entirely know what that was.

I suspect, though I can be convinced otherwise, that this book will be the best of McKillip for me, and everything else will be disappointingly impenetrable. But it was totally worth picking through her catalog to find it.
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Centuries ago, the mysterious giantess Odd founded a school of magic in the heart of the king’s city. Wizards learn there, magic ruled and regulated by the state. And once in a while Odd shows herself again, sending someone of her choosing down to the school as she does Brenden, the wild and untrained gardener of enormous natural power. Brenden is just one of many magicians in this book – the frustrated teacher tired of ruling his magic and his tongue, the king’s daughter secreting away her tiny illegal magicks, the people’s magician come to amuse the city with his illusions – and they all converge as the ancient seat of magic calls from the North.

Huh. You know how I used to complain about how McKillip’s imagery overtook her story? How she sometimes let the metaphors embedded in her scenery get so heavy they could nearly topple the whole book? How I wished she would be just a tiny bit less abstruse and a tiny bit more attentive to her characters as people, rather than walking, talking symbols?

Well she did, and I didn’t much like it.

Odd Magic is a book about the metered, precisely controlled magic of the school and the untaught, wordless magic of the wild. It’s about the damage people can do when they fear power. It’s about illusions, the magic trick kind that redirect the eye, and the real magic kind when you learn to really see something for how it is. It’s a book about the first quick look, and then that second look, and the power there.

All of which sounds like it should have lots of potential, and it’s a perfectly acceptable story, but I didn’t ever actually care, and McKillip wasn’t quite her focused, pithy self to carry me through. And the end left me surprised at its flat, happily ever after quality. I mean, I read McKillip for the way she tells fairy tales about roses, but always keeps the thorns in. And this book didn’t have any thorns at all.

I do have to say that I’ve collected yet another sharp McKillip definition of magic. She’s good at these, and at her very best mucking about in magic that comes straight from the brainstem and the heart, all instinct and the scored bedrock of hard experience.

“Magic,” he answered wryly, “is how you use what, in spite of all your good intentions, you learn.”
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Decades ago, Prince Pellior came bloodily to power in the ashes of slaughtered Tormalyne House. Far to the North on the island of Luly, a man without a name or a past trains at a school which teaches music and, to those who listen well enough, magic. The prince’s birthday opera is approaching, and as the story weaves the lost and bastard sons of Tormalyne House with the teachers at the city’s music school with the daughter the prince has molded in his own terrifying image, music and magic begin to tell the story of the past and the future.

Huh. Okay, so either McKillip has gotten a lot less abstruse since the last book of hers I read (The Tower at Stony Wood), or I’ve become a more inductive reader. A bit of both, I think. In any case, I enjoyed her usual imagistic style, where the entire book is wrapped in layer after layer of metaphor and the magic is as puzzling and inexplicable at the end as at the beginning. The thing about McKillip is that her universe is governed by the rules of story, rather than the rules of, say, Einstein. Her characters’ lives have a sort of epic poetry about them; they inevitably circle back to their roots, fall in love with a downright Shakespearean sense for the dramatic, and generally live lives that are shaped like the very oldest stories we know. Everything means something – reality is metaphor and metaphor is plot.

Which, taken as a whole, is both an acquired taste and one I have particular and limited need for in my diet. McKillip writes beautifully, with a compactness which requires of her reader a great deal of close attention. I admire the guts it takes to write like that, as well as to tell stories in a way which is so very different from contemporary norms of character and style. And so I really enjoyed this book, like you do a particularly rich and rare chocolate, even though it failed in multiple ways (the linchpin which turns the climax was not particularly explained, and the ultimate message about history and power and rewriting for the future took a lot of grasping on my part). But that’s the other thing about McKillip – she somehow places herself outside the censure of my usual critical tools, letting me enjoy the hell out of how she does her work, while making me go blinkblink at exactly what she’s doing.

Incidentally, she does include one of the most succinct and lovely definitions of magic I’ve ever seen.

““What is magic?”

She paused. “A word. It changes things, when you know what it means.””


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