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McKillip, Patricia A

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1948-2022) US author whose early books were all fantasy, mostly for children. These showed an increasing assurance (and appeared to be for increasingly older children) from The House on Parchment Street (1973) through to The Throme of the Erril of Sherill (1973 chap; exp as coll with "The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath" [in Elsewhere 2, anth 1982, ed Terri Windling and Mark Allan Arnold] 1984) and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974) – the last winning a World Fantasy Award for best novel – an assurance which culminated in the Riddle-Master trilogy: The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1978) and Harpist in the Wind (1979), assembled as Riddle of Stars (omni 1979; vt The Chronicles of Morgon, Prince of Hed 1981). It has been argued, by Peter Nicholls in Survey of Modern Fantastic Literature (1983) edited by Frank N Magill, that the trilogy is a work of classic stature: the intricate narrative of its quest story echoes a moral complexity almost unheard of in fantasy trilogies; McKillip's protagonist has a special skill at unravelling riddles and, through a series of strategies (including subliminal hints as little obvious as leaves in a forest) not unlike those adopted by Gene Wolfe in his The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols), she forces the reader also to become a decipherer of codes. Thus the book's meaning is enacted by the way it must be read. While in no way resembling sf, the trilogy contains one of the most sophisticated uses of the Shapeshifter theme to be found anywhere in sf or fantasy.

Her sf proper began with the poignant Kyreol sequence for the Young Adult market: Moon-Flash (1984) and The Moon and the Face (1985). Much as in her fantasy books, the central theme is Conceptual Breakthrough, in this case from an Edenic but primitive Pocket Universe, Riverworld, which turns out to be an isolated corner of a planet containing the way station of an interstellar civilization, and the protected object of anthropological study. Fool's Run (1987), which is adult sf, retells the Orpheus myth in a story of a woman visionary who has been found guilty of mass murder and is incarcerated in a Prison satellite, the Underworld (see Crime and Punishment); it is memorable for its evocative sequences about future Music.

Though McKillip's sf is unusual and well written, she has clearly found the conventions of fantasy more adaptable to her needs, which centre on intricate, deeply worked storylines whose exact wording and emphases demand, and reward, focused attention; demands perhaps less taxing than Gene Wolfe (see above) makes on his readers, but similarly mandatory. She returned to fantasy with the Cygnet sequence comprising The Sorceress and the Cygnet (1991) and The Cygnet and the Firebird (1994), set in a land where Star constellations manifest themselves as gods or people and transform (or redeem) the mutable human world into ageless story. As with almost all her work, her protagonists – in this case a firebird Shapeshifted from a warrior who on regaining human form loses his memory – are very conspicuously obedient to the stories that tell them. In this sense, much of her later work can justly be thought of as a set of elaborate fantasias on folklore (though often with no particular model identifiable).

Since 1987, McKillip wrote only fantasy, always individual tales: there are no series in her oeuvre after 1994. Obedience to inner truth, or to the underlying story which shapes the Land (much the same thing), lies at the heart of much of her later work. The Prince who is the protagonist of The Book of Atrix Wolfe (1995) must learn the rules of the world, through deep study of a book of Magic, in order to find a deeply hidden Princess. Song for the Basilisk (1998) similarly requires that its protagonist research his world before regaining his rightful place. In the powerfully moving In the Forests of Serre (2003) a Prince, suicidally depressed after the death of his wife and child, must learn to obey the redemptive magic inherent in the world he must rule in justice. The eponymous word-tangle in Alphabet of Thorn (2004) must be deciphered in order for the new Queen to recognize the nature, and the future, of her land. In The Bell at Sealey Head (2008), which is set in a venue as intimately Magic Realist as a James P Blaylock vision of California, two worlds are joined by a portal whose working – indeed the health of both worlds so wed – is governed by the ringing of the titular bell, a sound so deeply embedded in the cast's perceptions that it is often not heard at all. And the search for the source of poetry in The Bards of Bone Plain (2010) similarly intertwines the laws of inner magic and the clutter of the external world. Over the final decades of her life, eschewing the use of fantasy backgrounds for inherently mundane epics, McKillip became perhaps the most impressive author of fantasy story still active. In 2008 she received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. [PN/JC]

see also: Arts; Children's SF; Mythology; Space Stations.

Patricia Anne McKillip

born Salem, Oregon: 29 February 1948

died 6 May 2022



Riddle Master


  • Moon-Flash (New York: Atheneum, 1984) [Kyreol: hb/Theresa Fasolino]
  • The Moon and the Face (New York: Atheneum/Argo, 1984) [Kyreol: hb/Stephen Marchesi]
    • Moon-Flash (New York: Penguin Books/Firebird, 2005) [omni of the above two: Kyreol: pb/Steve Stone]


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