No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

#48: The Book of Atrix Wolfe -- Patricia McKillip

He saw the wood again in two worlds: one lifeless, dark, blanched with winter, the other drenched with light, green leaves trembling in a sweet soundless wind, and both on the edge of Hunter's Field. (p.132)

McKillip blends myth, fairytale and history in a tale of the aftermath of magical war: the eponymous mage Wolfe, under pressure from a king, uses magic to end war in Pelucir, but conjures a Hunter darker and more terrifying -- and more persistent -- than anything he could have imagined. From the wood on the hill, the Queen of the Wood watches with her consort and their child: Atrix Wolfe's magic whirls wide to include them too.

Fast-forward twenty years. The King is dead, killed on Hunter's Field, and his son Burne rules in Pelucir: Burne's younger brother, bespectacled Talis, is studying magic in Chaumenard when -- during a game of magical hide-and-seek -- he discovers a spellbook in a broom-cupboard. Returning to Pelucir, his forays into the book wreak domestic havoc, as when a spell to extinguish candles breaks all the mirrors in the castle: 'Words don't seem to mean themselves ... the spell in the book dealt with mirrors. But it said candles. And fire. So I was confused.'.

Then Talis falls from his horse, meets a woman in the wood on the hill:
"... she let me see her face. She was very -- she was more beautiful than --"
[Burne] grunted. "They always are."
And within days, Talis has disappeared in a sliver of moonlight, and Burne turns to the mages while Talis tries to reach back through to his own green world.

Meanwhile, in the kitchens, a mute girl scrubs pots and watches passively as creative, indulgent and mouth-watering feasts -- very much in the medieval style, pastry in bird-shapes, birds stuffed with other birds, mulled wine and cold meats -- are prepared for King and Court. When the black cauldron is empty of pots, she sees visions in the water ...

I'd reread the Riddlemaster trilogy (my very favourite novels when I was about 15: they've stood the test of time pretty well) and started wondering why I hadn't really connected with McKillip's later works. The Book of Atrix Wolfe is beautifully-written, and I love the central conceit that if one's writing of one thing but thinking of another, that other will flavour the writing; it doesn't move me as the Riddlemaster books did, and yet I admire the construction of the plot, shiver at the Hunter with the black moon between his antlers, am caught up in the poetry of the wood: and, yes, had to eat, and eat, while I read the kitchen scenes.

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