Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip
By the vow of her father and her own desire, Raederle was pledged to Morgon, Riddle-Master of Hed. But a year had passed since Morgon disappeared on his search for the High One at Erlenstar Mountain, and rumors claimed he was dead. Raederle set out to learn the truth for herself, though her small gift of magic seemed too slight for the perils she must face. The quest led through strange lands and dangerous adventures. Only her growing powers enabled her at last to reach Erlenstar Mountain. And there she discovered what she could not bear to accept. Accompanied by Deth, the High One's Harper, she fled. And behind them came a pursuer whose name was Morgon, bent on executing a grim destiny upon Raederle and Deth. Her only hope lay in summoning the Hosts of the Dead, led by the King whose skull she bore...
This review of Patricia McKillip's Heir of Sea and Fire is by Russ Allbery and has been reproduced thanks to his kind permission. To see this and many other great reviews by Russ Allbery, please visit www.eyrie.org.
This is the second book in the Riddle-Master trilogy, and although there's a bit of a time gap after the abrupt end of the previous book, Heir of Sea and Fire builds closely on the previous story. I read this book as part of the Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy omnibus, which is what the publication information is for.
Frustratingly, despite the cliff-hanger ending of the previous book, Heir of Sea and Fire picks up quite some time later and with a different viewpoint character. This is Raederle's story, daughter of Mathom, the King of An. The rulers and nobles of An are competing for her marriage, but she's promised by her father to Morgon, land-ruler of Hed. After the events of The Riddle-Master of Hed, that's a bit of a problem. This is the story of Raederle deciding to try to take matters into her own hands.
Once again, the plot is similar to a lot of other epic fantasy and is a bit disappointing, but the small details in how McKillip builds the world give the story some underlying strength. The basic plot retraces some of the steps of The Riddle-Master of Hed and follows the pattern of the companion going after the hero, a plot structure at least as old as Pilgrim's Progress. The disadvantage is some obvious repetition; the advantage is the opportunity to see the same terrain with different eyes. But little is resolved in the overall story; Heir of Sea and Fire suffers from being the middle book of a trilogy and feels like background and bridging material to set up the final book.
What McKillip does do is complicate some of the characters and ideas introduced in The Riddle-Master of Hed. The sea people who had brief roles as villains in the first book gain some depth and complexity and move into a role closer to the fae. Raederle shows the reader more of magic and the day-to-day sorts of things it can do in McKillip's world. And everything becomes trickier and more ambiguous. Lines of clear good and evil are harder to find; there's still one arch-villain, but that's called into question somewhat, and the different players have their own motivations that might be equally valid. The structure of epic fantasy survives surprisingly well against a more nuanced moral background.
One of the twists I most enjoyed was McKillip's investment of a strength of a different sort in Hed. In the first book, Hed largely plays the role of the Shire, the quiet agricultural backwater that stands in for normal life and to which the hero hopes to return. In Heir of Sea and Fire, there are growing hints and suggestions that Hed's focus on the land and its refusal of violence gives it a strength of its own. In essence, Hed takes on overtones of Tom Bombadil, a force that stands apart and may not be directly helpful, but is in its own way possibly as powerful. I'm curious to see where this goes for the last book. The effect is quite intriguing, particularly the way in which the people of other lands have a wary respect for Hed's determined pacifism. It's a philosophy that's normally shown as helpless in fantasy of this type, and it's good to see an author take it in a different direction.
We do find out by the end of this book what happened at the end of The Riddle-Master of Hed, but I found the answer disappointing. I thought the drama of the first book deserved something better, and I had difficulties with the end-game of Heir of Sea and Fire because of it. But the final few pages go a long way towards making up for that, combining some genuinely powerful emotion with enjoyable banter.
There's a lot left up in the air for the concluding book of the story — a bit too much for the strength of this book, but hopefully that means the last book will be the strongest. Heir of Sea and Fire isn't a bad continuation, but it still isn't making me trumpet the merits of this series. My opinion rests on how it concludes.
Followed by Harpist in the Wind.
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