THE RIDDLE-MASTER TRILOGY by Patricia McKillip
My entirely subjective opinion of “epic fantasy” is that it is tedious, predictable and just plain boring most of the time. The same line-up of stock characters go on the same quest to save a land that is permanently stuck in the Middle-Ages. On the way they meet the same supporting characters (gruff dwarf, regal elf, mysterious wizard), collect the same treasures, get in the same tavern brawls, are betrayed by the same turncoats, and join in the same battles against the same old villains. They drink mugs of ale, eat nothing but stew, and ride horses that never seem to need food or rest. The story usually stretches on and on over several very long books, and sometimes the author actually dies before they get the chance to complete their saga.
I realize that this is a huge generalization, I know there are exceptions to my view, and I know that there are thousands of people who would beg to differ on my opinion. But I just want to let you know where I’m coming from when I review the RIDDLE-MASTER trilogy, and why it’s rather extraordinary that I’m recommending it, even though it has all the basic elements of a typical fantasy novel. It is because this trilogy is so far removed from the crowd in terms of style and form that it belongs to a genre all its own. You haven’t read anything like the RIDDLE-MASTER trilogy before, which certainly presents a challenge in reviewing it.
Years ago, my first attempt at reading this trilogy did not end well: I managed the first book and half of the second, but I had to stop when I realized I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I just couldn’t follow it. Since then I’ve read almost all of McKillip’s later books and grown used to her lyrical style, which tends to conceal the plot behind dense imagery and poetic-prose. On reviewing her books, I always tend to warn other readers that her prose is something that takes getting used to, but is well worth the effort once you get the knack of deciphering its style. Once you’re familiar with it, it gets easier to read, and soon you can fully appreciate its dreamy quality. After finishing her latest novel The Bell at Sealey Head I knew it was the perfect time to go right back to the beginning and try again with her first trilogy: The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind.
The trilogy is set in a world that — despite resembling medieval feudalism — is a quite different from the usual fantasy setting, simply because of the way its features are presented. There are no chunks of exposition explaining how certain things work: concepts like the land-heirs or shape-shifting are never described in detail. Instead you have to pay close attention and figure out how it all works by yourself — but by the time it’s important to the plot, McKillip will have given you enough information to understand it.
Likewise, knowledge of the all-important heritage and history of this world is taken for granted by the characters — they know it back to front, and they’re not going to stop what they’re doing just to explain it all to you. As the story flows on you begin to grasp the pieces of this world, but it’s up to you to link them into a cohesive whole: we learn that some time in the past the wizards of Lungold mysteriously disappeared; there is mention of ancient beings known as the “Earth-Masters”; and people keep referring to someone called the “High One,” but who he is and what he means to them is kept relatively opaque.
This can be very disconcerting at times (no one in the text bats an eyelid when a character casually mentions that he’s several hundred years old — because it’s simply no big deal to them) and altogether the book reads like a manuscript that is not only about another world, but from another world, written by an inhabitant who simply assumes that the reader will know what they’re talking about. There is no exposition, no omniscient narrator… not even clear points-of-view from the characters themselves — you are chucked headfirst into this world, and if you don’t start concentrating, you’re going to be left behind.
In the first volume, The Riddle-Master of Hed, we are introduced to Prince Morgon of Hed, who contentedly rules a simple island kingdom with the help of his squabbling siblings. Unbeknownst to them, Morgon has recently emerged victorious from a riddle-game with a spirit, winning himself a crown as well as the hand in marriage of his old flame Raederle. Morgon’s desires are simple: in his own words, he wants to: “marry Raederle, and then go home and plant grain and make beer and read books.” Later he repeats this sentiment: “I want to go home, fix Snog Nutt’s roof, and go to bed.” Snog Nutt is his pig-herder, which should tell you what sort of man Morgon is.
But naturally, destiny has other ideas for Morgon, as he gradually comes to realize that there are riddles pertaining to the three stars upon his own forehead, and their relationship with a harp that only plays for him and a sword that awaits him in the deepest mine of Isig Mountain. It is a particularly obscure destiny, since nobody has any idea what it might mean, least of all Morgon himself. But Morgon reluctantly sets his face toward Erlenstar Mountain where the High One sits so that he might answer the riddle of his own existence. He travels with the High One’s enigmatic harpist Deth and gathers clues (as well as new magical skills) along the way from the wise land-rulers of various other countries, learning that much of what he’s been taught to believe about his world may in fact be an elaborately constructed illusion.
Heir of Sea and Fire is set a year after the events of the first installment, and deals with Raederle, “the second most beautiful woman in the world.” Along with Morgon’s family and friends, she is grieving over his apparent death at Erlenstar Mountain, and decides to go in search of answers. Joined by Lyra (who accompanied Morgon for a time in the previous book) and Tristan (Morgon’s little sister), the three women forcibly commandeer a ship and go in search of their beloved/friend/brother. I’m wracking my brains here, but I can’t think of another fantasy story in which three women team up for a common goal. Along the way Raederle discovers some shocking truths about her own heritage and identity, as well as the harpist Deth, and Morgon, who she fears may have changed beyond all recognition in his new persona as the Star-Bearer.
Finally Harpist in the Wind reunites Morgon and Raederle, draws together all the riddles and mysteries, and catapults all our characters toward the prophesied “end of an age.” I can’t bring myself to make a larger summary than this — it would spoil the surprises that are awaiting you in this final volume. Suffice to say that lingering questions concerning Deth, the shape-shifters and Morgon’s destiny are brought to their satisfying conclusion.
Our two protagonists, Morgon and Raederle are strong, intelligent, and brave…but more to the point, they are also good people. They go through so much suffering that they don’t deserve, they long only for one another’s company as well as the safety of their families and homelands, and it is thoughts of each other that first instigates their individual quests. The extraordinary thing about them is throughout most of the first two books we only ever see one brief scene of them together (in a flashback) and yet we are never in doubt of their very deep love for one another. I have no idea how McKillip pulled it off, but for a extended period of time the two lovers only interact briefly, and yet when the reunion comes, it’s heart stopping. If you can read their final exchange in Heir of Sea and Fire without getting a little choked up… well, you’re a stronger person than I am.
The supporting cast is just as strong: the myriad of brothers, sisters, mentors, lovers, ghosts, fathers, friends, rulers, allies, and enemies… any one of these characters, no matter how small, could carry their own novel. Likewise, any singular idea contained within the three (surprisingly slender) volumes is enough for any other author to thrive on for several books. McKillip’s restraint in not turning this into a full-blown multi-book series is remarkable when considering the ideas she’s managed to pack in.
In all three volumes, the conflict and tension arises from the presence of several insidious shape-shifters, who can hide their true forms behind the mask of a simple trader, a friendly sea-captain or a beloved wife. Their intentions are a mystery, no one really knows what they want, they pop up in the most unexpected places, there is no obvious way to destroy — or even identify them — and for all these reasons they are utterly terrifying, creeping out of the darkness like nightmares.
There are also the riddles that permeate the world and which are infused into the way people think and communicate with each other. For example, when Raederle asks her father a question relating to his stubbornness, he responds with: “Who was Thanet Ross and why did he play a harp without strings?” The answer to Raederle’s question lies in the story of Thanet and the lesson that it teaches. The “riddles” are perhaps misnamed, for they are more like prophesies or retellings of past events that come complete with strictures designed to help people learn from the past. Their elusive presence forms the backbone of the story, creating the mental challenges and mysteries faced by the protagonists, as well as the core theme of the trilogy: the mystery of oneself and the quest for self-identity.
As I’ve already mentioned, McKillip’s style is utterly unique. Though she’s gone on to write many books in her distinctive poetic-prose, the RIDDLE-MASTER trilogy is still a bit different, perhaps because it is based on quest narrative rather than her later use of fairytales. The only other stylist I can compare her to is Francesca Lia Block, who also writes as though she’s describing a series of lucid dreams, but there is an earthiness and emphasis on autumnal shades to RIDDLE-MASTER that reminded me of Lloyd Alexander’s THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, as well world-building that reminiscent of Ursula le Guin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA in that magic is mysterious, horrors are left up to the imagination, and characters are intimately depicted, yet kept just a tad distant due to the fact we are never privy to their innermost thoughts.
This review is massive, and I seem to have written an essay or a “how-to-read” manual rather than an actual review — but this is the type of book that requires something a little different. These aren’t books you read, they are books you experience, and as such, they are also books you have to be prepared for. They are definitely not for everyone — they are well nigh incomprehensible sometimes, and often I found myself re-reading sentences in the attempt to figure out what the heck was going on underneath the complex prose. And if I’ve made reading the RIDDLE-MASTER like a chore… well good. This trilogy needs your utmost attention, and if that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then consider yourself warned and don’t read it. But for those of you who are intrigued, then I’m pretty confident in telling you that you haven’t read anything like RIDDLE-MASTER trilogy before, and you’ll never forget it once you’ve completed it.
There are some fantasy epics that all literature professors, and even most normal people, would consider essential reading for any well-educated person — J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, etc. So, yeah, I read those a long time ago. But beyond that, there’s not much fantasy literature that’s essential reading. So, for a long time, I didn’t read any. In my drive to be educated, I stuck to the classics (which are classic because they’re great literature, usually). But one day, maybe 15 years ago, Patricia McKillip’s RIDDLE-MASTER fell into my hands. I can’t remember exactly when, and I can’t remember how. I can’t even remember enough to tell you exactly what the trilogy was about. It’s been that long ago.
All I can remember is sitting for hours, slack-jawed and amazed. The imagery was so beautiful, the writing so elegant, the ideas so powerful. Some of the imagery has remained with me; I can still remember the awe I felt when Morgon learned how to change into a tree, how to harp the wind, and who Deth was. I don’t really remember the details of the story very well, but I still feel it.
I was sad when I finished the RIDDLE-MASTER trilogy, but excited to have found something I loved so much, so I went looking for more beautiful fantasy literature. It’s been my favorite source of entertainment since. And thus, 15 or so years later, here you are, reading about my own little quest which ultimately resulted in this website. So even though I can’t give you any plot details about RIDDLE-MASTER, I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s worth your time.
The Riddle-Master of Hed tells the story of Morgon, Prince of Hed, born with three stars on his forehead. When he wins a crown from a dead prince in a riddle-game, Morgon is swept into a world full of political intrigue and magical deception. Morgon fights the course that all the world seems to be thrusting upon him, only wanting to be a simple prince of the farmers of Hed, but struggle as he may, there are other forces at work. A little known race of shape-changers starts replacing the people around Morgon. An ancient mythical harp reappears after centuries, inlaid with three stars that match those on Morgon’s brow, and the harp will only play to his touch. And then there is the sword, buried deep in the mines of a foreign country, which also bears three stars on its hilt. All these things are leading to one important riddle: What are the three stars, and what of the Star-Bearer?
This is a beautiful book. There isn’t much to say in my review that hasn’t already been said by Kat or Rebecca (above), so I’ll just tell you my reaction upon reaching the end of the book, “No!” I have to go find the second book in the trilogy now because I must discover what happens next. Patricia McKilllip has taken a standard End of an Age quest cycle and transformed it into something new, fascinating and compelling. The Riddle-Master of Hed is everything the Wheel of Time books wish they were, but aren’t.
RiddleMaster — (1976-1979) Omnibus edition. Publisher: For over twenty years, Patricia A. McKillip has captured the hearts and imaginations of thousands of readers. And although her renowned Riddle-Master trilogy — The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind — has been long out of print, it is considered her most enduring and beloved work. Now it is collected in one volume for the first time — the epic journeys of a young prince in a strange land, where wizards have long since vanished… but where magic is waiting to be reborn.