Knights dress in black and ride motorcycles, sorcerers and sorceresses run restaurants, and maybe your grandpa isn’t actually crazy. Such is the world in which Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher takes place. Though it may begin with a deceivingly simple quest of a young man looking for his long-lost father, Kingfisher becomes much more than that very quickly. It ends up following the stories of four young people as they navigate their changing worlds and values as well as deftly interweaving their lives in surprisingly satisfying ways. I was leery (and a bit confused) at first, but Kingfisher delivers an enchanting tale of ancient-feeling magic in the modern day.
This isn’t a book in which you’re going to find in-depth detailed descriptions of how magic works, and I loved it. The first sorceress we meet has a tendency to keep an eye on her son Pierce throughout the story by ‘borrowing’ — as he puts it — the eyes of a living creature nearby. No explanation beyond this is given and I am of the opinion that the magic in Kingfisher doesn’t need explaining. Whenever it arises magic herein has an old-world, dreamlike feel to it, as if it is only being half-remembered by the modern world it is in. I found this to be an excellent device and fit the story, with its uncanny coincidences and ancient mysteries, perfectly.
Kingfisher, as mentioned above, begins by following Pierce in his search for family, but ends up following four young people (more or less). The atmosphere is set off by the tangle of secrets and magic and is continued by the increasingly interesting intersections between the four stories. In the beginning, the coincidental meetings and almost-meetings are, at best, funny little quirks and, at worst, too convenient. For me, they gradually became intriguing as more and more secrets of the Wyvernhold (the country in which most of the story takes place) come to light. I felt like that first sorceress, seeing the stories unfold as if through the eyes of a bird at a great height. If only I could get far enough above the world to see it all clearly, I might be able to piece together what it is all supposed to mean. At the back of my mind I often had the slight niggling of ‘this is just too perfect’ with regards to the happenstance of some moderately important plot points, but in the end the atmosphere and powerful forces had me convinced that the world was being influenced to be that way.
Looking back on Kingfisher, I found that the somewhat stop-and-go start didn’t lend itself well to the otherwise smooth tale. It immediately plunges you into a world that looks and feels fairly ordinary — except for the magic and the literal actual knights (armour and all at one point) — but, for a split second, Kingfisher feels like it almost stops entirely. It has you stuck in a backwater, edge-of-the-world town just a touch too long for my taste, and had me wondering where (and when) this was going to go. Once it does get going you start seeing the parallels between the four stories and it becomes a literary game of “eye spy.” Although it almost lost me before it began, Kingfisher quickly drew me back in to its lush, captivating pages.
Each of what I perceived as the main characters, as well as the secondary characters, is a unique, dynamic entity within the story. Everyone you come across is clearly both influenced by and influencing the things around them. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to guess who the story might follow next as each character provided a new perspective and experience to explore. Similarly, if someone — anyone — else were to read this tale, I’m almost certain they could pick out a few different characters than my choices as ‘main’ ones. This is not evidence of confusing or cluttered writing, but of how captivating each character is in their own right. I found myself and my reading of the story to be most impacted by Pierce, Daimon, Perdita, and Carrie, and so see them as the main characters. There are definite candidates beyond those four as being more central, but these children of power ended up being the most influential to my experience of the story.
One last thing I loved about Kingfisher was the setting and social structures. Within the first few pages, Pierce talks to some knights about the restaurant his mother, the sorceress, runs. Apparently, she makes excellent crab cakes. The unique blend of ancient-feeling magic and religions, not to mention the feudalistic knights, and modern technology herein was something that kept hold of my imagination the whole way through. McKillip does an excellent job of building an atmosphere that feels at once feels old and new. Enchantments and spells, illusions and ancient artifacts; the world is ripe with remnants of a lost time, and yet these enchantments catch real people riding motorcycles and using cell phones while artifacts are found by a kid who drives a pickup truck. Kingfisher presents a deliciously complex world of knights, sorceresses, and kings as they live their lives as ticket-takers, cooks, and, well, kings.
Kingfisher is a lilting, ancient tale of family, magic, loss, and god-like power set in a modern world where feudal structures never quite let go. The depth of character and continuously intersecting stories lend it ultimate re-readability, creating a beautiful stand-alone novel with plenty of opportunity to revisit the world of the Wyvernhold. What McKillip has built here is immersive and will be difficult for me to forget.
Patricia McKillip’s latest fantasy novel, Kingfisher, blends together the disparate elements of an Arthurian-type court, with King Arden, his knights, and their search for the Holy Grail ― in this case, an ancient cauldron with magical powers ― and a contemporary setting, complete with cell phones, vehicles, highways and all of the modern conveniences. Kingfisher also weaves together three different plotlines of three young people who are all somewhat adrift and searching for answers: Pierce Oliver is the son of a sorceress who left her estranged husband, a knight, without ever telling him she was pregnant and had a son. They’ve been hidden in Cape Mistbegotten on Desolation Point ever since, until Pierce meets four knights of the king, who are passing through his town, and abruptly decides to leave his home and mother for the big city and the king’s court to try to find himself and, perhaps, his father. The second main character is Carrie, a gifted cook and the daughter of a mage. Carrie who works at the mysterious Kingfisher Inn, where everyone (including her father) seems to be mysteriously troubled, and the weekly All You Can Eat Friday Nite Fish Fry has somehow become a vaguely ominous ritual. Carrie takes a second job with a competing restaurant run by the gorgeous Todd Stillwater and his wife … but there’s something very odd about this couple and the food they serve in that restaurant. Finally, we have Daimon, the king’s bastard son, who falls in love with Vivien Ravensley, an otherworldly girl. Daimon discovers through her that he has a dual heritage, and is both entranced and torn by it.
Placing a Camelot-type court in the modern era, and mixing in liberal doses of both magic and technology, is an intriguing concept. It’s hard to resist a chuckle at knights of the court roaring off on their motorcycles to try to locate the lost vessel/Grail, or one knight texting others an image of a fake cauldron in order to draw them off course in their search. But these two vastly disparate worlds don’t always mesh smoothly.
More problematic is that the plotline is too fragmented, following several different characters and storylines, and including too many elements: a shape-changing father, the queen and court ladies’ rather paganist holy cave, a Circe-like sorceress who kidnaps Sir Leith in a bout of unrequited love, the elusive cauldron, the haunted Kingfisher Inn and its inhabitants’ bitter feud with Stillwater’s restaurant, and so on. McKillip’s poetic writing can be gorgeous, and it’s filled with delightful imagery, like Pierce’s worried mother using various animals’ eyes to keep a watch out for her wandering son, as Skye mentions. But McKillip’s rather ambiguous writing style adds to the obscurity and sense of confusion, making it difficult for me to feel fully engaged by the story.
Kingfisher does contain a lot of subtle nuances and allusions to Arthurian and other legends that are fun to try to tease out. The Kingfisher Inn and the book’s title call to mind the legend of the wounded Fisher King, who depends on another person for his healing. Daimon’s girlfriend, Vivien Ravensley, is part of an ancient realm called Ravenhold, whose remaining people want to regain power over the land that was taken from them. The repeated raven references and imagery seem to be an allusion to the Raven King legend, in which King Arthur was transformed into a raven and roams the earth in that form until his return. Pierce Oliver seems to be an analogue of Sir Percival, who was taken by his mother into the forest and raised in ignorance of the ways of men, until he meets a group of knights as a teenager and decides to try to become one himself. This book is a goldmine for Arthur lore enthusiasts.
In the end, the confusing storyline, with its overabundance of competing elements, made Kingfisher feel muddled and thus less than a complete success for me, particularly where several story threads are left unresolved in the end. But it had a lovely mythic feel to it, and at least it errs on the side of being ambitious.
Patricia McKillip‘s latest offering delves deep into the imagery and symbolism of Arthurian legend, specifically the Grail Romances. Although those familiar with the likes of Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach will find echoes of older stories strewn throughout the novel, McKillip never explicitly invokes the legends upon which she’s based her story. Instead, she uses them as a sort of baseline to craft her own mythology, one teeming with ancient resonance as well as her own original flourishes.
As with many of her most recent books, McKillip intertwines two relative but largely unconnected plots into a single narrative, following the journeys of her two protagonists: Pierce Oliver and Prince Daimon of Wyvernhold. Set in a world that’s half-recognizable, half-fantastical, the two young men seek out their hearts’ desires by traversing coastal towns and fishing villages; mysterious restaurants and subterranean caves.
For Pierce it is the identity of his father, having been raised by a powerful sorceress in an isolated town called Desolation Point. Having met a trio of knights passing through, Pierce decides to follow them to Severluna and King Arden’s court, where his father and hitherto unknown brother await — each of them unaware of his existence.
Meanwhile, King Arden’s youngest son Daimon is haunted by the beautiful Vivien, a woman whose influence over him causes some consternation among his family members. His precocious younger sister, in particular, is desperate to find out what power has a hold over her brother, and for what reasons.
Based on this synopsis, you may already spot a few familiar archetypes: the Fisher King, the Kitchen Knight, the Grail Maid, the Triple Goddess — but all in forms you’ve never seen before, in a setting that combines fantasy with contemporary elements. These knights and maidens drive limos and carry cell-phones; a quirky combination that, I suppose, puts this story under the umbrella term of magical realism, though the whole thing is heavily dowsed in the trappings of a contemporary fairy tale.
Along for the ride are dozens of supporting characters — so many in fact that it can be difficult to keep track of them all. McKillip has always been renowned for her use of poetic-prose, and though it’s far less dense than it once was in her earliest work, this is still a novel that requires your utmost attention in order to grasp the who, when, how and why of what’s going on.
McKillip has been writing for decades now, and it’s clear from Kingfisher that her muse is still alive and kicking. With gorgeous language and memorable characters on every page, those who are familiar with Grail Romances and Arthurian legends will get the most out of this story, particularly when it comes to spotting and identifying elements of McKillip’s source material. It’s mysterious and illusive and thought-provoking, like any story about the Holy Grail should be.