Riddle-master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip

December 30, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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It is often a feature of mediocre fiction that the most memorable characters are the villains. There are a lot of reasons for this: often the villain is driving the action, gets the cynical and sarcastic lines, and does interesting things like tortures people. But there’s a more subtle issue: it is much easier to write a sadist character or a power-hungry jerk than it is to write a genuinely wise character. Even a truly friendly character is difficult to do realistically.

I found it very interesting that in the Riddle-master books, the villains hardly get any screen time and when they do, they tend to be disguised through various means as wise and friendly characters. McKillip has built a world that feels alien not because of magic or customs but because it seems almost entirely populated by wise and friendly people. In Lord of the Rings Tolkien kept his villains generally off screen, but their malevolent presence always weighed on his characters and thus the reader. Further, even if, say, Sauron is not physically present his agents often are and, failing that, the Ring embodied his evil.

In Riddle-master vast stretches of narrative pass without any contact with the forces of evil, such as they are. This sounds like a receipe for boredom, and in a lesser author it would have been. McKillip does such a nice job on the primary characters that she gets away with it. That doesn’t mean I wish there was a little more narrative urgency, or more of a sense of human failings in the peoples of her world, but she makes it work when it really shouldn’t. I believed in her people and her world. While I can go back and nitpick about a thousand things in her world-building, I can’t argue with the results: I was fascinated by the story and cared about the main characters and their problems. Riddle-master isn’t a masterpiece, and the publisher makes a mistake perhaps in comparing it to Tolkien on its omnibus cover, but it is a fine story that will not disappoint those who enjoy well-written fantasy.

With the recommendation out of the way, I’d like to also add a note about the title. I wasn’t so sure going in that I was excited to read about a master of riddles, but while McKillip seems to have thought very carefully about the philosophy behind “riddling” it turns out what I and probably you think of as riddles don’t really feature. It’s especially surprising given in her recently written introduction she cites the book’s riddle contests as a clear Tolkien influence. But in The Hobbit Bilbo and Gollum play a riddle game involving genuine riddles–short poems that force you to identify a concept or non-Proper noun using some unconventional characteristics or semantic wordplay. When McKillip’s characters deal with riddles they are really dealing with history through the filter of trivial pursuit. “Who won the crown of Aum from Peven?” is not a riddle, it is a question. What she is talking about would be much more accurately called loremastery, not riddlemastery. This isn’t a problem–in fact it was more of a relief not to have to deal with silly rhymes and such.

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