Some of the GMR staff were having a conversation about books that are beautifully written, books whose authors obviously love the English language and use it skillfully, extravagantly, profligately, even orgiastically. Patricia McKillip’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe is on my list of such books. It’s a book I return to at least twice a year, to linger once again in the richness of its language.
McKillip, as I’ve said before (see my review of The Changeling Sea), has the gift of portraying faerie places and people as truly “other,” mysterious and motivated by desires and needs that are not human. One of the ways she conveys this sense of otherness is through her use of language to evoke beauty, mystery and terror together.
Three riders with no faces sat staring at the mage in the wood. . . One rider was a man with pale bright hair; the second a child with his pearly hair, flowing long and unbound on the wind. The third rider had hair the colors of autumn leaves, with ribbons and strands of pearls braided into it. She wore a crown of deer horn and gold. There was a black oval where her face should have been. Behind them rode hunters with faces of leaves, of twisted willow boughs, or smooth white birch bark. As the mage’s eyes slid across them in wonder and bewilderment. . . the crowned rider fixed an arrow into her bow.Sorrow, a voice cried, as she loosed the arrow, and he knew, in the way of dreams, that the voice, wild and sweet as running water, belonged to the dark, empty oval of the face beneath the crown. The air shattered into hoarfrost and light in front of the mage, white, glittering, cold as death. She cried again, Sorrow, and the arrow struck him.
The faceless lady is a faerie queen, of course. Her consort has human blood. They have lost their child somehow to the mortal world, and the queen will do whatever it takes, calling mages and princes and binding them to her will, to search until the child is found.
Meanwhile, the young prince Talis of Pelucir is struggling to learn enough magic to save his homeland from the ravages of a magical fetch, the fearful Hunter of Hunter’s Field, who showed up on a night of winter and battle when Talis was an infant, killed his father, and has never quite left Pelucir.
Meanwhile, a young girl named Saro appears at the back door of the castle in Pelucir. She cannot speak, but she can do as she is bid, so she is made a scrubber of pots in the castle kitchen.
Meanwhile, the mage Atrix Wolfe has given up his magery and roams the high mountains in the form of a wolf. His spells went terribly wrong years ago, twisting on themselves, and to protect the world from them, he put them all into a book and hid the book where no one would find it.
But Talis finds it.
McKillip has power with language, with individual words and layers of description. But she also possesses the ability to create strong strands of plot, each centered on a vivid individual. Talis is a young man with limited abilities, who loves his country and is forever misplacing his glasses. He fears he will never know enough magic to help Pelucir, but he will keep trying to learn. His brother Burne, now king of Pelucir, doesn’t understand his gentle younger brother, looks with affectionate confusion at his strange, newfangled glasses, and tries to hold the kingdom together. If Talis can help, Burne will give him whatever he needs to make the magic work — but he finds himself yelling and cursing when another of Talis’ attempts at spells goes wrong and smashes things.
Atrix Wolfe leads an absolutely fulfilled life as a wolf, but he senses at once when his ruined magic is found. He must brace himself, reassume his human form (now long aged), and track down his book before someone uses what is in it, as he did years ago. The danger of Atrix’s magic is that, even if one uses it to try and prevent great evil — as Atrix did — once the magic is let loose it will seek its own ultimate end. If it is loosed to bring terror and death sufficient to stop a war, then the terror and death will never stop until they find their rest. Like Ursula Le Guin in the Earthsea stories, McKillip uses the metaphor of magic to tell a deep truth about power: the more we try to bend circumstances to our will, the more inevitable forces we set in motion; they will find their ends, with or without us.
Also like Le Guin, McKillip in this book shows us how the common folk, the people behind the scenes, have as much or more to do with the outcome of any story as “the great.” Through Saro’s eyes, we see the kitchen of the Pelucir castle. We see how the cooks strive to create meals to meet the needs of King Burne as he hunts for the faerie queen who has enchanted him; or to carry up to Talis in his tower, as he seeks to summon ghosts. The servants listen. They have their own ideas about what should be done. And when a strange book makes its way to the kitchen, it stays safely hidden there, when amongst “the great” it could be doing great harm.
McKillip then goes another step further and twines each of her characters, with their own compelling plot lines, together without breaking or losing a single one. At times the lines look as though they will tangle or fray hopelessly, but somehow we never lose confidence in the story. We know that McKillip will lead us to the end of the rope, without letting us or her characters fall.
Talis, his brother Burne, Atrix and the faerie queen all have separate quests, separate desperate needs that each thinks he or she is pursuing alone. As the story unwinds, each is drawn slowly closer and closer to the others, until their quests collide and they must help one another — or all that they need will be lost.
And in the kitchen, Saro scrubs pots, forgotten by the entire world. She listens to the words spoken by the cooks and servants around her, and begins to learn language again, slowly and hesitantly. There will come a day when a desperate mage will cry, “I must find an answer for the queen’s sorrow!” and she will be ready to step forward. . .
(Ace Books, 1995)