The Riddle-Master's Botched Endgame

by Arthur B

Patricia McKillip's classic fantasy trilogy begins well but loses its way towards the end.
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A shockingly long time ago I reviewed Patricia McKillip's The Book of Atrix Wolfe and idly mentioned that she'd also written the Riddle-Master series which I wanted to revisit. Well, at long last I have, and coming back to it kind of reminded me why it took me a while to come back to it in the first place: it starts really staggeringly well, but loses its way partway through.

To give the trilogy some context, this was one of McKillip's earlier works - she'd had a few standalone books emerging prior to this, but this was the first series she attempted - and based on the blurbs on the back of my copies it seems like her publishers were very keen to market her as being a bit like Ursula Le Guin (and to be fair, stylistically McKillip seems to have been only too pleased to play up to that). The series has had one-volume compilations come out under various titles over the years - Riddle of Stars, Quest of Riddlemasters, The Quest of the Riddlemaster, and Riddle-Master - but most compilations these days seem to follow the lead of the Fantasy Masterworks series in calling it The Riddle-Master's Game.

The trilogy unfolds in a realm where the monarchs of the various kingdoms and principalities owe their position in life to the mysterious High One, who governs their mystic connection to their lands from his solitude in Erlenstar Mountain. In the kings and queens of large, powerful nations, this so-called land-right manifests in potent magical abilities - such as taking the form of the animals or trees of their land, or having the ability to see wherever they desire to see. But in Morgon, Prince and ruler of the tiny island of Hed, it merely means he is deeply on touch, on a personal level, with the peace that has reigned in Hed for centuries, which in Morgon’s case suits his pacifistic nature.

After the death of Morgon’s parents, he returned to Hed to rule alongside his brother Eliard and sister Tristan. But before that, he studied at the college of Caithnard, headquarters of the Riddle-Masters. In this setting, “riddle” has a very specific meaning - we aren’t talking about the sort of cryptic rhyming riddles from The Hobbit, we’re talking about a particular question (like “Who was Re of Aum?”), the answer of which takes the form of a story and which, if you’re getting formal, also requires that a stricture or lesson be derived from the story, so the Riddle-Masters are effectively historians eternally seeking to answer unanswered riddles. Especially important are those riddles surrounding the mysteries of the distant past - the time of the wizards who worked their wonders at their school in Lungold, and who disappeared suddenly one day, and before that the time of the Earth-Masters, whose abandoned ruins dot the landscape and who supposedly disappeared following a terrible of war, of which the High One is rumoured to be the only survivor.

Morgon, unusually for a Prince of Hed, has a knack for riddles; thus it is revealed at the opening of the first novel, The Riddle-Master of Hed, that shortly after becoming Prince he journeyed to meet Peven of Aum, the ghost of a former lord of Aum who had been bound to his tower for centuries by the monarchs of mighty An, and who would not surrender the ancient crown of Aum to anyone unless they could best him in a riddle-match. Having won the crown from Peven, Morgon had brought it back to Hed but kept it secret, not wanting Eliard or Tristan to know that he’d risked his life playing Peven’s game. The truth eventually comes out when roving traders arrive in Hed, for Morgon intends to sell the crown to buy things for himself and his family (being too dutiful to spend the profits from Hed’s own exports on himself and the royal household). But travelling with the traders is Deth, the High One’s immortal harpist, who reveals that the King of An has declared that whoever wins Peven’s crown shall have his daughter Raederle’s hand in marriage.

Having met Raederle previously, Morgon decides to journey to An; he doesn’t know whether Raederle would even want to marry him, but if she doesn’t, at least delivering the crown would release her from her father’s strange promise. But not long after Deth and Morgon set forth the journey is disrupted. As Morgon stumbles across evidence that a strange race of shape-shifters have been infiltrating the lands, corrupting the courts of the land-rulers, and massing their forces, it becomes ever more clear that the peace the High One has ruled over is about to be ruthlessly shattered. Even more disturbing are his discoveries about his own destiny - about the birthmark of three stars which he bears, a mark which appears on a harp crafted centuries before his birth, and alluded to in a riddle: “Who is the Star-Bearer, and what will he loose that is bound?” Confronted with this evidence that he is the Star-Bearer, Morgon comes through many diversions and detours to Erlenstar Mountain, hoping that the High One himself has the answers.

The tone of The Riddle-Master of Hed is a lot like that of A Wizard of Earthsea, and McKillip seems to be following LeGuin’s example: both the High One’s realm and Earthsea are places which operate according to principles that are revealed to the reader bit by bit over the course of the story, but are completely pervasive throughout the societies described. A great deal of fantasy novels essentially take a society based off the author’s impressions of a particular time and place in our history, files the serial numbers off, and then bolts magic onto that. If the magic of - to pick some examples out of thin air - Ray Feist’s world of Midkemia, or the setting of The Steel Remains were switched off, you can imagine that most people could keep going about their lives perfectly happily. But you can’t imagine Earthsea without the power of names, just as you can’t imagine the High One’s lands without riddles or the land-right - they are too woven into the culture, to the point where if you got rid of them you’d basically have to redo all the worldbuilding from scratch.

Also reminiscent of the first Earthsea novel is the whole reluctant hero running from himself thing; this was a bit more literal in A Wizard of Earthsea, with Ged’s other self becoming physically manifest, whereas in The Riddle-Master of Hed Morgon’s own crisis is a bit more complicated than that. A big theme of the book is how prophecy is kind of horrifying in the way it undermines the idea of free will; riddles, harps, swords and plans have all been crafted centuries in advance for the sake of the Star-Bearer, shaping this role for Morgon to step into, but it’s a role that until now he had no inkling of and wasn’t even slightly prepared for. Moreover, if he takes up this identity it will mean sacrificing his old self; if he bears a sword and becomes a warrior, this would be so alien to the office of Prince of Hed that Morgon is convinced that he would lose the land-right as a result. There’s a great conversation at one point in the book where Morgon says that if he brings weapons to Hed and tries to arm the populace, it wouldn’t be Hed any more, and if he returned home with a sword on his belt then his own family would look at him like a stranger. By the time the novel ends, however, Morgon has more or less realised that he can’t just turn his back on what is going on and go back to his old life - if the rest of the realm falls, pacificistic Hed will not stand for long - and in doing so he has become a wilder and stranger person than the peace-loving homebody he started out as.

There’s a lot more than an Earthsea-influenced coming of age story here, though. McKillip is excellent at depicting sense of danger that surrounds the shape-shifters; they attack through dreams and proxies, and appear in the guise of the dead, and create this impression of pervasive menace whenever they make their presence felt. She’s also great at depicting this odd Dark Ages social order, where Princes don’t really live that much more luxurious lives than their subjects, and only wandering merchants really travel very much, and whilst the monarchs of your safe homeland might be ordinary people, the rulers of far-off lands could well be centuries old greybeards who run with the wolves or are one with the trees. McKillip also ranks as one of the few post-Tolkien fantasy authors (of whom LeGuin is one of the few others I could name) who manage to replicate Tolkien’s trick of making their stories seem like legends from an old historical tradition when in fact they’ve been invented wholesale, and at points her prose is a lot like the best parts of The Return of the King - heavy, purposeful, and within coughing distance of Beowulf or the prose Eddas.

Except McKillip is a heck of a lot more readable than Tolkien is, though like him she is awfully fond of dropping invented names about the place. Still, The Riddle-Master of Hed is one of the best first novels of a trilogy I’ve ever read. It’s also the volume of the trilogy I have the most to say about, to be honest, because unfortunately though the setup as provided here is great the resolution leaves something to be desired.

Heir of Sea and Fire shifts its tone a lot, being as it is Raederle’s story depicting how she reacts to the disappearance and apparent death of Morgon and discovering her own hidden powers - but also has to deal with portentious disruptions in the land-magic of the realm of An, whose dead rulers have become decidedly grumpy. The tone of the book feels much more down-to-earth and the prose reads far less poetically than the highly crafted material of the previous book; the book is still highly readable, but the connections to the rest of the story are far from clear at first, and I suspect that a lot of readers will spend a lot of time puzzling over how it’s supposed to fit in with the rest of the series.

The book is also where I found myself confounded the last time I tried to write something substantive about it for Ferretbrain. I basically don't have much to say about it beyond "A bit like the first one, only the prose style seems to be more straightforward and less oblique". Sure, there's all the gender politics stuff around Raederle being betrothed to whichever random dude happened to find some guy's crown, but as it turns out she seems to like Morgon anyway and so the problematic aspect of that plot point is kind of glossed over. Ultimately, it's a book which was good enough for me to sit through, at least on the inertia invested by the previous book, but which isn't quite exciting enough (or flawed enough) for me to really get especially verbose about.

Eventually, Morgon re-emerges and the book starts to feel for the first time like it’s part of the same story and universe as the first in the series, though Morgon’s re-emergence brings with it far less answers than you’d think. It’s maddeningly unclear, for instance, what the Big Bad actually did with Morgon during Morgon’s captivity, and it isn’t really cleared up at all in the final book in the trilogy, Harpist In the Wind.

Here we run into a problem; Heir of Sea and Fire, by providing an entire book with Raederle as very much the main protagonist, makes us both invested in Raederle as a viewpoint character and a bit distanced from Morgon. Harpist In the Wind, though both characters are present for much of it, reads for me as though it’s very much “Morgon’s story, with Raederle tagging along”, with the narrative rooted in Morgon’s viewpoint and Raederle basically behaving in a way which is maddeningly difficult to suss out and which the narration doesn’t give us any insight on, leaving the reader with the unhappy impression of being locked out of a viewpoint which had previously been open to us. (It doesn’t help that this seems to be a “Oh, boys just don’t understand how women feel, lol gender essentialism!” sort of dealio.)

This ambiguity is a hallmark of the last book in the series, which feels like McKillip is trying to return to the more mythic and poetic style of the first book but for whatever reason isn’t really feeling it. The prose feels less finely carved and more simply overwritten, and too much of the action is muddled and confused by McKillip simply not being good at adapting this style to describing action sequences, of which there are many. Slightly too often it simply becomes deeply unclear what the characters have actually done in a scene, and in particular most of their uses of magic involve vague arm-waving about their exertions of power which feels less like a description of something powerful and real and very slightly out of reach and more like bullshitting to cover the fact that the magic seems to do whatever the plot needs it to do at any particular time.

Another issue is that, now that both the mysteries of the High One and the shapeshifters are clearly related both to Morgon and to Raederle’s true natures, the final book seems to come down to being yet another coming-of-age learning to accept your power sort of deal, rather than being a book where after doing all that stuff in their personal episodes Morgon and Raederle actually use that power to the benefit of the world. An awful lot of the resolution involves our protagonists learning to accept and live up to the expectations placed on them by their heritage, which is dodgy enough as it is, but the story also feels tremendously padded out, especially since we have all these scenes of Raederle and Morgon angsting about the exact same stuff they were angsting about in the previous chapter interspersed with fights and escapes where the basic riddles of the plotline are declared but not advanced very far.

It also makes the fact that we don’t get much of Raederle’s point of view seem deeply unfair, since a big segment of the plot involves her accepting her own ultimate destiny and place in the world and we don’t get to see much of that. Or at least, we don’t in the bit I read; I finally gave up halfway through, skipped to the end to work out what the deal with Morgon’s destiny was, decided it was incredibly stupid and gave up.

I think the greatest disappointment about the series is that it turns out that more or less everything of any significance in the story and the setting ultimately ends up revolving around Morgon and Raederle’s coming of age stuff. To be fair, there’s an extent to which that is an aspect of this sort of story. On the other hand, I am not sure stories where the moral is “Hey, teenagers trying to make sense of the world, it turns out the world really does revolve around you after all!” are necessarily something I as a man in his mid-30s really feel much of a connection to these days, and I’m not even convinced it’s an especially helpful slice of didacticism to offer Young Adults. More to the point, whereas in the first book the world seemed like this deep, rich thing with this ancient lore and all of these astonishing little stories poking out of all the crannies, here it doesn’t feel deep at all - it just increasingly feels like a cardboard set that exists solely for Morgon and Raederle’s awkward process of self-discovery to play out in front of.
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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 21:30 on 2016-11-12
Puzzled as to why this one isn't listed as a Reading Canary, as it seems pretty clearly the first one is the one to read.
Arthur B at 14:06 on 2016-11-13
Thing is, I think reading the first book by itself would be really frustrating - it involves a lot of setup and establishing of various mysteries, and though it ends in one pretty decent reveal by the end of the trilogy the answers McKillip offers can't possibly live up to the buildup.

Part of me, in fact, wonders whether she spent most of Heir of Sea and Fire dealing with a side story precisely because she was putting off addressing the major mysteries because she wasn't entirely sure how to execute them effectively.
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