I read Patricia McKillip’s 1976 “Hed” trilogy over twenty years ago, but my memory was basically favorable, though I didn’t recall esteeming the trilogy as highly as her 1974 stand-alone novel “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.” So I gave the first novel in the trilogy a re-read.
I give McKillip points for trying to find a novel approach to the “reluctant hero,” which, within the genre of modern fantasy, is practically defined by Tolkien’s Frodo. Like Frodo McKillip’s hero Morgon lives in a quiet, bucolic territory bordered by more bellicose realms. In part Morgon wants to do no more than live out his life farming and keeping pigs. But in Morgon McKillip paints a man at odds with his own conscious tendencies—and with a destiny signified by a unique birthmark: three star-shapes on his forehead. Later in life, he enrolls in a college of riddle-masters, whose purpose is to decipher all of the ancient riddles left behind by the long-vanished wizards of their world. Finally, following the death of his parents at sea, he leaves his rulership in the quiet kingdom of Hed and enters a haunted tower, where he challenges a ghost to a riddle-contest and wins. Morgon conceals his great deed and hides his prize under his bed in a doomed effort to return to mundanity. A visit from the harpist of the reigning High One provides a call to action, forcing Morgon to embark upon a quest to solve further riddles.
RIDDLE-MASTER is a solid effort, though on many occasions it feels too transparently like what it is, a setup-novel for the next two parts—which, my memory tells me, read much better. McKillip creates some tantalizing mysteries but sometimes plays a little too coy in fleshing out the details of her world. Sometimes “infodump” in a fantasy can be a good thing, at least when the alternative is leaving the reader floundering about, trying to figure out the histories of the various war-embroiled countries. McKillip seems determined to avoid challenging Tolkien on these terms, seeking instead to focus on mundane, common activities. Perhaps under different circumstances, her aim might have been realized. However, you know you’re in trouble when Morgon learns shapechanging magic from two different masters of the art, and both characters sound roughly the same.
It’s my memory that she does better with her characterization in the latter two segments of the trilogy. Time, and future reviews, will tell.