Friday, February 6, 2015

Review: "Alphabet of Thorn" by Patricia McKillip

McKillip's covers are so alarmingly twee.

A labyrinthine library tunnels through the cliffs beneath the castle of Raine, overflowing with the written flotsam and jetsam of lost civilizations. The foundling Nepenthe has spent her whole life translating these ancient texts. 

When one of the castle's mages delivers a puzzling new book in a new language, somethings in its twisting script speaks to her. Rather than turn the project over to her superiors, Nepenthe hides the book and translates it on her own.

While Nepenthe sinks further into the curiously unfinished record of an ancient conqueror-king, real conquerors threaten Raine's security. The squabbling lords of the realm view Raine's absent-minded young queen as no impediment to their ambition.

But the queen seems more inclined to hide from the threats than to deal with them.  

3.9 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Periodically I try to read something new by Patricia McKillip, author of one of my best-beloved books--The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, inaugural winner of the World Fantasy Award. It's a stunning book, timelessly stark yet deceptively complex. It reminds me of a hanging mobile: various glittering weights suspended from the thinnest of threads, perfectly counterbalanced, always presenting a new composition for the viewer to consider as it slowly revolves in an unfelt breeze.

Other McKillip books remind me of what happens when a mobile's weight is wrong: a fallen heap of pretty but mismatched baubles, wires and crossbeams tangled together.

Hence the word "try."

I had low expectations for her 2004 novella, Alphabet of Thorn. And it met them, for a long stretch! It opens with a comically blatant bit of Mysterious Orphan Foreshadowing. By the third page, characters are already discussing how Nepenthe (whose name, unsurprisingly, means "forgetfulness") looks like someone, they just can't put their finger on who. Her eyes change color, of course. She has exactly one memory, which is both inexplicable and perfectly accurate. Yadda yadda. 

By the second chapter the notion of Love At First Sight is well entrenched. Lines like "Until that moment, I hardly knew I had [a heart]" are used without irony. 

Dear reader, it's grim stuff. But I kept going, having no pressing schedule to keep. I confess I was gleefully composing a really rude review in my head as I went.

McKillip seemed to be wading into a deadly morass of unconnected plotlines, in which several of her other books have drowned. Nepenthe in the library under the cliffs; her Prince Charming in the mage school (itself a pretty piece of scenery--a puzzle box of a building whose configuration changes without warning, and which sometimes floats above the surrounding forest, whose status as real or illusory is under debate); an aged mage-and-soldier couple trying to guide their dandelion-brained new queen through an impending war; and through it all, fragments of myth about an Alexander-the-Great type and his sorcerous companion, stomping their way through lesser kingdoms. It was all moderately interesting, but fragmentary and unsatisfying. 

Then, all at once, the jumbled literary mobile McKillip was assembling turned just so and caught the light. I was on page 200 when it hit me. And I thought: if McKillip is taking this where I think she is, this is going to be a really neat story. When the oblivious characters lampshade it a bit further on, it's hard not to imagine the author cackling with glee as she typed. I know I would have been. 

I turned to my roommate and said "This is either going to get 2.5 or 4 stars, and I can't predict which it will be."

Alphabet of Thorn tricked me, and I'm absolutely furious to report that it's actually quite a good story by the end. It not only suspends all of the disparate characters and plotlines by the same delicate web, it builds the emotional significance that was uncomfortably absent at the start. The story of the conquerors rises above its cliches and absolutely nails some honest truths about the human heart by the end. I found myself deeply invested in the shy and woefully inept queen. In the ending, McKillip hits a home run.

I will not ruin a thing about this one. The thrill of catching on to McKillip's cues is a great part of the book's value. (Would it be as stunning on reread? I suspect so.) 

It's not as magnificent a construction as The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. It lacks that mythic glory. With a bit of narrative scrubbing, though, it could have matched Eld, and that's as high as I can praise it.

In the end, of course, I'm going to be a snob and knock off a fraction of a star (from 4.0 to 3.9) for its eye-rollingly terrible beginning. The book's splendid ending doesn't retroactively improve how it starts. Besides, if I gave Alphabet of Thorn an unqualified four stars and you started reading it, you would think I had lost every one of my marbles.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Overall Response: I'm so mad this book was better than I expected it to be!
Content Warning: mention of suicide

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