The Tower at Stony Wood by Patricia McKillip
Patricia McKillip is one of the most unique fantasy writers out there, blending echoes of ancient stories in with intricate and elegant poetic-prose that may surprise those new to her writing style. I must admit that her work is an acquired taste, it took me a few tries to fully understand and appreciate her work; to grasp the story underneath the many-layered poetic language that she invokes.
The Tower at Stony Wood is no exception to this style, so if you are a first-time reader to McKillip, and find this book incomprehensible; don’t give up — try another of her books and you’ll most likely become attuned to her way of writing and become as big a fan as I am. In this case, McKillip borrows two ideas from Celtic folklore: the legend of the selkies, half-seal, half-fish women that sometimes abandon the seas to live on the earth, and the famous image of “The Lady of Shallot” (best known through the works of poet Alfred Tennyson) — the lonely woman who weaves the images she sees in her mirror, imprisoned in a stone tower.
In Arthurian legend, this woman is Lady Elaine, who died of her unrequited to Sir Lancelot, but here McKillip gives her a new identity. Cyan Dag is a loyal knight of the King of Gloinmere, who also rules over the isle of Skye and the Northern Isles of Ysse. King Regis Aurum has just taken a bride from Skye, but a bard that has travelled with the bridal party shares with Cyan a terrible revelation: that the new queen is an imposter, and the real Lady Gwynne is imprisoned in a tower, forbidden from seeing the world in its reality.
Meanwhile, Thayne Ysse, the heir to the throne of the Northern Islands broods over his country’s defeat at the hands of Regis’s men, which resulted in his father’s madness, his younger brother’s crippling, and the terrible penalties of tribute and taxes that followed. He is determined to right the wrongs placed against him, and so goes out in search of a dragon guarded tower which is said to contain a treasure that will certainly provide for an army marching on Gloinmere.
And finally, on the island of Skye, in the Stony Wood, in a sea-tower sits Melanthos, who spends her days weaving and watching the images in a small mirror that reveals another woman watching another mirror… Melanthos and her mother Sel are entranced by this vision, steadily rejecting the real world in favour of this strange sight.
Before the story is over, each of these tales will find each other, woven together by the arts of three mysterious sisters and connected by three very different towers.
Ultimately, I don’t think The Tower at Stony Wood is McKillip’s best work — she instigates two plot twists during the course of the story, and whilst the first one is rather intriguing, it isn’t followed up properly, making the second twist rather irksome. Perhaps it warrants a second read, but it just didn’t seem entirely convincing to me.
As a side-note, if you own Loreena McKennitt’s album The Visit, then you might be interested in reading this book whilst listening to the track “The Lady of Shallot” — it’s what inspired McKillip to write this novel, and its lyrics are based on Tennyson’s original poetry.
I started The Tower at Stony Wood because I wanted to see what Patricia McKillip, with her talent for wordplay and complicated magic, would do to get the “Lady of Shalott” out of her predicament. How do you save a woman who will die if she leaves her prison? But The Tower at Stony Wood goes far beyond that seed of a story, meandering through subplots that don’t seem relevant until the end, weaving a complex tapestry of old grudges, old debts, love, and magic. For along the way to save the Lady, the knight Cyan Dag must sort out several other problems.
In the end, The Tower at Stony Wood is a deeper and more complicated story than it seemed on the surface, and richer than Ombria in Shadow, which is prettily written but relies on cardboard Good and cardboard Evil to carry the plot.
Not quite as enchanting as Winter Rose, in my opinion, but in the same league as The Sorceress and the Cygnet. Fairly standard McKillip, and “standard” for her means “very good.”
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