fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Patricia McKillip The Bell at Sealey HeadThe Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip

Patricia McKillip’s latest novel takes us to the little fishing village of Sealey Head; tiny and inconsequential, and dominated by four influential families: the Cauleys (father and son innkeepers), the Blairs (a large family of merchants), the Sproules (rich farmers who have gained some degree of nobility) and the Aislinns (living in the crumbling manor house). Actually, there’s only one Aislinn now: old Lady Eglantyne, who lies dreaming in her bedchamber, waited on by a host of servants. The extensive cast of characters have interconnecting friendships, rivalries and romances with one another, but everyone in the seaport is linked by one specific peculiarity of their hometown: each night as the sun goes down, a ghostly bell tolls over the coastline.

There is various speculation over what and where exactly the bell is, but no one has been able to satisfactorily answer any questions about it, and most don’t even notice it anymore. But naturally, the bell is of more consequence than anyone gives it credit for, and is the mysterious centerpiece of the story.

There is a domesticity and humour to the proceedings that’s certainly unusual in a McKillip novel: Judd Cauley cares for his elderly father at the Inn, lamenting over the terrible cooking; Gwyneth Blair scribbles away at stories at her casement window for the amusement of her younger siblings; the foolish Raven Sproule courts a disinterested Gwyneth at the encouragement of his romanticized sister Daria; and Emma Wood and the rest of the Aislinn household try to serve their dreaming mistress as best they can, whilst worrying about the security of their jobs should Lady Eglantyne’s inheritress turn them out of the house. One would hardly think there’s a fantasy element to it at all…

But then odd things begin to transpire. Judd Cauley welcomes an unusual guest at the inn, who claims to be looking for the source of the tolling bell. Lady Eglantyne’s heiress appears: a strange and aloof young woman with an even more disinterested manservant. And we discover that young Emma Wood has a secret concerning Aislinn House: for as long as she can remember she has been able to open doors into another Aislinn House, one that seemingly exists alongside her own world of shut rooms and covered furniture. This world is filled with silent knights and bloodthirsty crows, but Emma has struck up a friendship with a young Princess called Ysabo, who lives her life by the strange and mindless rules of a ritual that she has been raised to follow exactly and ordered to never question.

As you can see, there’s a sprawling cast of characters to keep track of: family members, otherworldly hosts, servants and strangers, and it is a testimony to McKillip’s skill that she keeps them all (no matter how inconsequential) clear and unique. Likewise, her portrayal of a world is vivid and imaginative. She rarely creates large, sprawling sub-universes, but rather brings to life little corners of a fantasy realm could exist anywhere: in the distant past of our own world, the realm of faerie, or in another world altogether. It doesn’t matter where it exists, for Sealey Head is real enough to its inhabitants, and therefore to the reader as well.

The inter-joining stories throughout The Bell at Sealey Head are juggled as delicately as the myriad of the relationships, and no one character’s thoughts and ambitions are given prominence above another’s. Gwyneth’s frustration at her dull suitor, and her Judd’s secret pining for his childhood sweetheart are just as poignant as Ysabo’s life of dreary ritual, pervading fear that any break in the ceremony will destroy her world, and terror at the thought of marrying a perfect stranger. Everyone seems to have a secret, as well as hidden talents.

The characters are vivid, the situation is fascinating, the language is beautiful (even if the word “spindrift” pops up too many times) and the themes and symbolism is fascinating. It is best compared with my favourite McKillip novel Alphabet of Thorn in which a commentary on the mutability of time centered round the image of a folded cloth. Here, the “worlds-within-the-world” idea of books and stories take prominence, in which Patricia McKillip’s characters must learn to “read between the lines” of their own story.

Up until the last few chapters, I was delighted, certain that The Bell at Sealey Head was about to become my new favourite McKillip novel. Unfortunately, and I hate to say it, but the story unravels a bit in the final chapters. The villain is defeated easily and anti-climatically, and we never get any real sense of his motivation. Three important characters turn up in order to lead a rescue mission… only to end up sitting in a cellar, doing nothing. The relationship between the real Aislinn house and the “spirit” Aislinn house is never explained. And if you thought there would be some sort of clever twist concerning Lady Eglantyne (like maybe everything in the secondary Aislinn house was her lucid dreaming, or that somehow she was a older version of Ysabo that was caught out of time)… well, you’ll be disappointed.

Still, The Bell at Sealey Head is high up on my list of McKillip’s vast collection of books, and I always appreciate fantasy writers who tell intricate and thought-provoking tales that don’t have a deluge of sequels that have to be waded through in order to get the complete story. Mrs McKillip: please don’t ever stop.

Finally, as I’ve said many times in my reviews for McKillip’s novels, this particular author has a unique way of telling a tale. Her language is dense and poetic, and often it can be hard to get through the ornamentation of a sentence in order to grasp its meaning. McKillip, like Francesca Lia Block, has a style that is an acquired taste — one must get used to it before it can be enjoyed. However, the syntax of The Bell at Sealey Head is significantly less complex than some of her earlier novels, and so would be a perfect introductory novel to a McKillip newbie. Either way, The Bell at Sealey Head is to be savored and enjoyed — you do yourself a disservice if you rush a McKillip book.

The Bell at Sealey Head — (2008) Publisher: Sealey Head is a small town on the edge of the ocean, a sleepy place where everyone hears the ringing of a bell no one can see. On the outskirts of town is an impressive estate, Aislinn House, where the aged Lady Eglantyne lies dying, and where the doors sometimes open not to its own dusty rooms, but to the wild majesty of a castle full of knights and princesses…


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.