For the most part, I’m allergic to fantasy reads. It wasn’t always the case, but an overdose in my younger years to the Occidental style then in the following years to an Oriental style cemented that aversion. However, there are a few authors that still make me giddy, and one of them is Patricia McKillip. I think on a bookshelf, McKillip’s books often get overshadowed by megastar Anne McCaffrey’s collection, but off the shelf, McKillip’s are much more impressive in content and cover. The covers
Some things that separate McKillip from other fantasy authors I’ve read are the following:
1) Her plots are rarely about the fate of the entire world and how they rest on one unknown/known person. In the case of Song for the Basilisk, our “hero” Master Caladrius is the last scion on a noble house who is off to find revenge against the Prince of Berylon. However, Caladrius is not a young, active man with a magical sword or pet of somekind. Rather he is a tired, weary, sorrowful middle-aged man who has seen how far his enemy will go to wipe him out and doesn’t expect to live beyond the pages of the book. In fact, McKillip kills the stereotypical “hero” character—a bright, eager last scion like Caladrius—in the first part of the book, just to show how doomed vengeance is.
2) Despite the liquid fantastic that spills from the pages, the plots have a lot of mundanity, which I think sets a nice balance. Whether cooking, running businesses, playing with puppets, gardening flowers, or eating food, or in the case of this book writing music, McKillip sets grounds her characters with the practical. Of course there are magicians and sorcerors of great power, but they rarely tend to be the protagonist. Often, they are the potential antagonist such as the Prince of Berylon or his daughter Luna.
3) McKillip writes the best spells and magic; she never gives away the entire story. One thing that eventually drove me insane in fantasy novels was that an author would write a sentence like: “Bellyannathor suddenly had a dream that recapped every minor detail of the dog chewing the bone, which was discussed in great depth earlier but will be mentioned now obviously and is the key to her blah.” McKillip’s magic is confusing, beautiful, mysterious and never completely explained, which makes her a great re-read because you always found out something new. For instance, in my latest re-read of Song for the Basilisk, I finally caught the one line detail of a certain spell cast over a young woman named Jena Aubade. In the end of the book, there is a one sentence detail where an old woman is just waiting to have a spell removed. Rather than explain “Oh this magic rose that I’m holding is for this old woman who actually was a young woman. But I turned her into an old woman to save her from death,” McKillip just has her character give away the rose and and mention that it heals. Or as a character named Hollis says in the Basilisk book, “You turned into a raven and (SPOILERS THAT WON’T BE MENTIONED). That’s all I can explain.”
4) The endings are always unexpected. Even in the two titles of hers that I read and didn’t care for, I never expected them. I thinks it’s because her endings push for unusual fantasy resolutions. Caladrius is planning to kill the Prince of Berylon, but he doesn’t really care what happens to the world after that. He won’t be crowned Prince or gain power over something like a Jewel of Granagronog. But what makes the endings even better is that they’re so simple; they’ve been waiting in the wings since the beginning of the story without characters or readers noticing, and even though I want to tell you one as an example, I’ll refrain and won’t.
Aside from that, Luna is one of my favorite, female fantasy characters. McKillip gives all of her characters a lot of respect, even the minor ones, so that everything comes full circle. Rarely are characters needlessly sacrificed or knocked into stereotypes, and I think it’s because McKillip allows them to keep a private part of their minds and their intentions apart from the publicity of the plot.