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11:03 pm: Review of Patricia McKillip's 'Alphabet of Thorn.'
Well, I've been wanting to write another rant for a while, but at the moment I don't have any really new ideas, and I don't want to simply repeat myself. So I decided to start reviewing individual fantasy books instead, so that I can point out what I liked and didn't like about them (and get ideas for more rants).

It'll also give me an opportunity to write good words that aren't just gushing praise, which is harder than ranting.

So, since Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip is the first book I've read for the first time recently, as opposed to rereading an old favorite, it's first up. This has only minor spoilers, for plot twists that I don't think are really important and hinting at the ending without actually telling what happens.

Brief Summary: Most of the book takes place in the Twelve Crowns of Raine (basically, once-independent Kingdoms that the monarchs of Raine have conquered). The old King has just died, and a new Queen, only fourteen years old, has ascended the throne. Meanwhile, in the immense royal library, a young woman named Nepenthe, who was found as an orphan by the librarians some time earlier, has just started deciphering a mysterious manuscript. The manuscript is written in letters that look like thorns, and only Nepenthe can understand them. This reveals a history that is fascinating to Nepenthe, though inexplicably boring to a lot of outside listeners. Meanwhile, the Queen is being threatened by her lords, who are grumbling about the change in power, her own lack of experience, and an even more mysterious presence growing in the distance.

The Setting: This is beautiful, atmospheric, and the book's greatest triumph. Raine has a wood that contains secrets and may or may not be real, a Floating School of mages that travels about at whim, and a library so huge that books are left undiscovered in it for generations. Its castle is also at the edge of the sea, which McKillip evokes well. This is the description of the castle, on pages 6-7 of my copy:

"The palace of the rulers of Raine had grown from a seedling through the centuries. Long ago, it had been little more than a fortress on the edge of the world, guarding its portion of thick wood and plain against other princelings. Through the centuries the palace had become a small country itself, existing between sea and air, burrowed deep into the cliffs, piled above the earth so high that on a clear day, from the highest tower, the new Queen of Raine could see all but three of the Twelve Crowns she ruled. The first King had taken the first Crown; lands as far as he could see from his single tower. Before he died, he had added two linked Crowns to his own. Now there were twelve, and they flew on a tower higher than the king could ever imagine, even in his wildest dreams, as he guarded Raine in his sleep in the secret cave within the cliff below the palace."

Even though it's part history lesson, I wasn't bored reading it. McKillip managed to pack history, legend, and some very poetic phrases, such as "existing between sea and air," into one passage. The library of Raine comes to life, too, through the eyes of Nepenthe and the people who come to visit her and continually get lost. When she hides the manuscript of thorns, later in the story, she has little fear that anyone will find it, and neither does the reader. Put something hidden in that library, and it stays hidden, unless someone finds it by chance or by following one of the librarians around.

Part of the book, the story that arises from the manuscript, is set in another time and place altogether, the Kingdom of Eben, home to Axis and Kane, two ancient conquerors. McKillip does an even better job with echoing motifs here. When she invokes peacocks in the garden and the Serpent River, they stay invoked, and get repeated later, with utter naturalness, in the story. McKillip is an absolutely accomplished incanter.

Unfortunately, that language takes over in Alphabet of Thorn. Books like In the Forests of Serre, the one she published before Alphabet, use the language and setting to render everything dream-like, and the characters inscrutable and complex. Here, though, the characters fell flat for me, and the plot disintegrated.

The Characters: I have to admit I was wary of Nepenthe immediately. The conveniently found orphan, she's noticed right off by several of the other important characters, obviously has a Mysterious Heritage, finds love at first sight, and gets an extensive description, including color-changing eyes:

"Within those stones she had grown her weedy way into a young woman, long-boned and strong, able to reach high shelves without a stool. Her hair, which was waist-long and crow-feather dark [at least it's not raven], she kept bundled at her neck with leather ties; during the course of the day she would inevitably pull them out to use as book marks. In that sunless place, her skin stayed brown as hazelnut. The eyes that gazed absently back at her in the mornings from her wash-basin were sometimes green and sometimes brown." (Alphabet of Thorn 7).


Now, I'm all for characters being special and important if they're also intriguing, complex, and have flaws, which can combine to earn them respect from the reader and the other characters around them. I object to them being special just because of their appearance, something they're born with and have little personally to do with, and I tend to flee when that appearance is used to substitute for characterization.

In this case, the scholar who notices and comments on Nepenthe's appearance disappears for a little while, so I didn't run. I stayed to read, and got involved in Nepenthe's love of translating.

And then I found the story had jumped.

I have to admit that I don't like the structure of this book. It's a pretty short story, only 314 pages, with smaller pages than normal for a hardback. But it has twenty-seven chapters, and those alternate among five narrators: Nepenthe; the young Queen, Tessera; Bourne of Seale, Nepenthe's love interest; the ancient mage Vevay; and Kane in the era of Kane and Axis. It also sometimes flickers into omniscient narration, like the passages I quoted.

It doesn't work. It feels incredibly choppy, and some of the characters have little purpose in the story. I only ever mustered much interest for Nepenthe and the story of Axis and Kane (which is absolutely fascinating and could easily have made up the whole book). Vevay sort of wanders around and worries. The Queen wanders around, worries about being Queen, and, oh, incidentally, develops incredible magical powers that are never adequately explained. Bourne moons around and angsts.

Their plotlines also fizzle. Bourne supposedly angsts because his uncle is involved in an uprising against the Queen, and that means that he has to choose where his loyalties lie. Yet his uncle stays a shadowy figure, the uprising plotline gets ignored for pages on pages, and Bourne is really more angsty over Nepenthe. I ended the book utterly bewildered as to what he was doing there, since it seemed that Nepenthe could have done without him altogether, or found a love interest in another character (an obvious candidate is present in the story).

Vevay bothered me even more. Her discoveries and worries are adequately covered in the Queen's narration.

I could see some point to the Queen as eyes on the story, but I grew irritated with the MAGICAL POWERS OF DOOM, which she had no reason to possess and which severely undercut the idea of a young, helpless Queen who would have to depend on her adviser, Vevay, to survive. (It also rendered Vevay's presence in the story even more puzzling and bothersome). I could sympathize with Tessera when she was struggling to rule a Kingdom on her own, with no one understanding what she really wanted. My sympathy declined sharply when it became obvious that she, too, was Special because of something inborn, not because of decisions that she made about her magic or the way she wielded it. (The power really seems to wield her, not the other way around). This also felt like the most rushed plotline, as though McKillip had explanations in mind for it but forgot to put them in or had to cut them for reasons of space. I don't think it should have been published as it stands.

Have I mentioned that I didn't really like the plot?

The Plot: We have Cliché City from the beginning. This really isn't unusual with McKillip, since several of her other books include comparable situations. The Riddlemaster's Game is the tale of Morgon of Hed, who is a prince but doesn't want to be, and has unexpected magical powers. Song of the Basilisk has a lost heir coming back to reclaim his heritage. In the Forests of Serre has a princess forced into an arranged marriage. However, McKillip handles those plotlines the way they should be handled, with complex characters. She makes them not just about an archetypal quest or bid for freedom, but the story of the quest or bid for freedom as those characters, and not anyone else, enact them. That's one reason I treasure her (other) books. They show that fantasy doesn't really have to give up those good old ideas. It just needs to use them better.

However, Alphabet of Thorn uses its unusual ideas much better than the typical ones. Nepenthe's struggle to understand the manuscript and the story of Axis and Kane and their world-spanning empire- or, rather, how they achieve their world-spanning empire- are wonderful ideas. It's not often you get a librarian heroine, at least in a fantasy novel. And Axis and Kane prove that legends are, sometimes, not just distorted reflections of a seed of truth, but outright lies or misunderstandings.

The overarching plot, however, collapses under the weight of the horrible clichés. Nepenthe's orphaning is not just to get her into the library, which I could have understood and accepted. It has a Purpose, and that Purpose is just what you think it is, and it sucks. The moment I understood, I felt a deep sense of betrayal. Nepenthe is a wonderful concept, but she's not allowed to remain that way; she's sacrificed to the idea of the Mysterious Heritage.

The struggle of the Queen for the throne is also lifeless. I felt nothing for Tessera past the first few chapters about her. It was obvious not only that she would triumph, but how. McKillip doesn't usually telegraph her punches like that. The moment I saw the first trace of it, my mind made a leap, and I wasn't surprised by anything concerning Tessera for the rest of the book. It made her sections even more boring to read than they already were.

There are also numerous ideas, as well as characters, that fizzle. The uprising that Bourne's uncle is leading is not so much threatening as it is laughable. The discovery of the mysterious threat hanging over the Kingdom is conducted in such a haphazard and plot-device-guided fashion that I was rolling my eyes long before the first stages of it concluded. Numerous small revelations occur, are treated as important for a little while, and then are not mentioned again. The book is full of loose ends.

However, the only part of this book I truly hated was the ending. It was inexcusably quick, and inexcusably neat. The other conflicts collapsed before it, making the angst of several characters, particularly Bourne and Vevay, seem absolutely useless. I don't know what the hell McKillip was thinking, but it didn't come out well.

Final Analysis: I don't think this book is worth paying full price for; I wish I hadn't. Get it used, if you really like McKillip, or if you think that you might not mind the clichés. Or, if you're really interested in the neat ideas and don't mind spoilers, you can ask me and I'll be happy to tell them to you.

Well, that got my frustrations out to a certain extent.



Date:September 2nd, 2010 05:37 am (UTC)
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