Once again Patricia McKillip crafts a wonderful story, and although I must admit that I haven’t read all of her novels, I think it’s safe to say that Alphabet of Thorn is one of her best works. Out of her many books I have read, this one is definitely my favourite. Her beautiful language, her startling imagery, her intricate plot, her mind-twisting ideas… all come together in this stunning story.
In a beautiful cliff-top palace by the sea (so high that one cannot hear the ocean from the top) a coronation is taking place for the young and inexperienced Queen Tessera. Delegates and dignitaries from the Twelve Crowns (the term given to the divided countries that rule under the Queen’s supervision) have come to bestow their blessing — and their judgments — on the new Queen. Tessera is in a precarious situation, as any number of her new subjects could take this opportunity to overthrow the monarchy and establish themselves as high-ruler of Raine.
But beneath all the pomp and color, dug deep into the cliff, is the royal library, where scholars and librarians go about their business out of sight of the bustle above. Nepenthe is a young foundling, raised by the librarians and now working as a transcriptor in the underground library when she travels to the nearby floating school of wizardry to fetch a book that needs translating. But as soon as she has the mysterious book in her hands, one that is written in a twisted language of thorns, she finds herself transfixed. Slowly she begins to translate the strange text, uncovering the history of the Emperor Axis and his sorceress/lover Kane (I only wish McKillip had given them better names).
Axis was obsessed with conquering, and Kane was obsessed with him: together the two swept across their world, and in translating the text, Nepenthe is swept up in their tale. She is hardly aware of the political machinations going on above-ground, though she is slightly more attentive toward Bourne, the young wizard in training (unfortunately part of a treasonous family) who delivers her the book. But what compels Nepenthe to translate the book, how will it finish, and what does it have to do with the trouble brewing in Raine?
I’ll say this as simply as possible: this is a terrific book, with an intricate plot and a great twist mid-way through. Newcomers to McKillip’s style can sometimes be a bit off-put by the language, and when I first discovered McKillip it took me a while to get used to the fact that the story was often hidden behind the dense use of language. But the more of McKillip you read, the more you get used to it, and I found Alphabet of Thorn compulsive reading. Every chapter I finished, I couldn’t wait to get to the next one. There are a couple of unnecessary quirks — I couldn’t understand Bourne’s presence at the wizard-school (simply because McKillip doesn’t explore the rules of magic-users in this world; leading me to wonder why every country didn’t send their kids into the school to learn how to use useful magic that can be used in their favor) and the romance between Bourne and Nepenthe wasn’t entirely convincing.
But those are minor quibbles, and do nothing to affect the flow of the story. There are so many good ideas packed into this book that a less-gifted author would have probably split them up into several different books. I loved the parallel between the darkness of the subterranean library and the bustle of the palace, as well as the intricate political maneuvering that Tessera must negotiate (including the prickly relationship between herself and her deceased father’s old advisor Vevay, who doesn’t think Tessera has the mettle to rule). Then there’s the way McKillip plays with the mutability of history and legend, plus it never ceases to amaze me at how McKillip can take a simple image, for example, a folded cloth — and form an entire theme around it. If you want to know how, you’re just going to have to read the book! If I say anymore, I’ll just end up giving away the entire plot — so get your hands on it.