Riddle-Master, by Patricia A. McKillip
Good fantasy writing has to have some sense of reality to anchor it. I love fantasy, and I love being taken to the heights of imagination in a good story – so long as one foot remains firmly planted on the ground. There has to be a connection to life as I know it in order for the fantasy to work and to hold my interest. I doubt I’m alone in this.
Riddle-Master, a trilogy that is really one long book, starts out with great promise. Within the first 20 pages I was caught. I liked the characters, I liked the setting, and I wanted to know more. As the story developed, I came to care deeply about Morgon, the Prince of Hed with stars on his forehead, as he journeyed his way to the answer to the Star-Bearer’s riddle. He was a tormented man as well as a powerful one, and he drew you into his life and his questions. The book ended on a cliff-hangar as compelling as any I’ve read, making me want to turn the page immediately to find out what happened.
Luckily, I was reading this book last weekend while I was quite sick, and Gabe was taking care of Jonathan and letting me lie in bed and read :) But as I continued, I was frustrated to find that the rest of the book just didn’t deliver on the original promise. The second book followed Raederle, Morgon’s promised wife, as she sets out looking for Morgon. It was much slower than the previous chapters, which I suppose can be forgiven as it was the “beginning” of another book. But I never fell in love with Raederle. She is a nice girl, and had she just remained a nice girl in love with Morgon, I think I would have appreciated her more. Instead, suddenly we find that she is the heir of “power” – of a sort that isn’t really explained, and which grows and changes to fit whatever situation she finds herself in. It is a break with reality that I found jarring – I kept wanting to say “wait, she can’t really do that! How did she learn how to do that? That’s cheating!” It is a bad sign when you want to argue with the author.
Unfortunately, this new style was only a forerunner for the rest of the novel. Eventually we are returned to Morgon’s story, and his and Raederle’s stories blend into one in the third book. Both characters have unimaginable “power” that they can use in ways that defy imagination, much less reality. Again, they seem to be created to match the momentary need, at least at the beginning. By the last half of the book the entire story has degenerated into an endless game of mind power, with no basis for why or how any of it is happening, and no way to know who will win or lose. Every main player in the final “battle” is using mind power, and since there seem to be no rules for what it is or how it can be used, there is no way to know where you are in the battle or who will win, or even what the point is anyway. You no longer care even about Morgon, because he has fundamentally ceased to be a man.
I would recommend the first book of the trilogy, except for the fact that you won’t be able to stop there. And I think you’ll be disappointed if you continue to the end.