He dropped into the wild current of the Cwill, let it whirl him, now as a fish, now a dead branch, through deep, churning waters, down rapids and thundering falls until he lost all sense of time, direction, light. The current jarred him over endless rapids before it loosed him finally in a slow, green pool. He spun awhile, a piece of water-soaked wood, aware of nothing but a fibrous darkness. The gentle current edged him toward the shore into a snarl of dead leaves and branches. He pulled himself onto the snag finally, a wet, bedraggled muskrat, and picked his way across the branches onto the shore. (Harpist in the Wind, p.133)
I discovered McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy in my teens -- I have a vivid memory of reading the books instead of studying for 'O' levels -- and have reread the books several times over the intervening ~30 years. Remembering the intensity with which I used to immerse myself in favourite books, I'm not really surprised that I can remember whole paragraphs almost word for word. These were a quick reread, because so much of the text is set in memory!
I love the rich tapestry colours and the vivid visual descriptions; the blend of Celtic and Scandinavian myth; the elements of archetype, legend, emblem (I hadn't read Campbell's The Hero's Journey when I first read McKillip). The whole 'riddle' framework -- where history and a kind of spirituality are conveyed within fables that remind me of Sufi parables as much as of the Mabinogion -- appeals intellectually. I'm fascinated by the openness of the characters: even when they have hidden secrets, there's a level of emotional honesty (and complexity) that's (or that was) rare in genre fantasy. And I like the characters -- though now they mostly seem very young to me.
I admire McKillip's other novels, though increasingly I've found them subtle, multi-layered, allusive and elusive: by comparison, the Riddlemaster trilogy reads like -- and is now, I believe, published as -- young adult fiction. It's a more straightforward tale, a hero's coming-of-age, not quite a quest fantasy but with a great deal of travelling as the protagonists learn the Realm.
And I'm starting to wonder, half-frivolously, if it could be read as science fantasy, comparable to McCaffrey's Pern books: those are 'obviously' fantasy at first, what with the dragons and Holds and feudal society, but increasingly sfnal with allusions to colonisation, genetic engineering and the like. McKillip's Realm, ruled by a High One, formerly the domain of the Earth-Masters, riddled with wizards and ghosts and shapechangers: clearly a fantasy world, and yet there's talk of the years of Settlement (that is, the current occupants arrived there from elsewhere). And if one's going to seize on tiny details*, how about 'the old moon with a lost star drifting between its horns'? (Heir of Sea and Fire, p.158) That, to me, implies something shiny between moon and viewpoint: too close to be a star or a planet, but just right for an artificial satellite ...
Anyway: always worth a reread for me, always comforting, always something new: the best kind of favourite book!
*as elsewhere, for example, a capital 'c' on the word 'culture', or a reference to a 'falling star', might serve as key to unlock a novel by Banks or Fowler ... just sayin'.