The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip
Long ago, the wizards had vanished from the world, and all knowledge was left hidden in riddles. Morgon, prince of the simple farmers of Hed, proved himself a master of such riddles when he staked his life to win a crown from the dead Lord of Aum. But now ancient, evil forces were threatening him. Shape changers began replacing friends until no man could be trusted. So Morgon was forced to flee to hostile kingdoms, seeking the High One who ruled from mysterious Erlenstar Mountain. Beside him went Deth, the High One's Harper. Ahead lay strange encounters and terrifying adventures. And with him always was the greatest of unsolved riddles - the nature of the three stars on his forehead that seemed to drive him toward his ultimate destiny.
This review of Patricia McKillip's The Riddle-Master of Hed 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 first book of a closely-connected trilogy; if you plan to read it, you may want to have the next book on hand. I read The Riddle-Master of Hed as part of the Riddle-Master: The Complete Trilogy omnibus, which is its most common form these days and which the publication information is for.
Morgon is the land-ruler of Hed, a non-descript, undramatic, peaceful, and very agrarian island off the coast of a land with a vivid and mixed magical history. Morgon himself has had a few un-Hed-like adventures, having been educated as a Riddle-Master in the city of Caithnard, but since the death of his parents in a shipwreck he's settled down to oversee the farming and land of Hed. However, before doing so, he went on one last adventure, beat a ghost in a riddle game, and won a crown and the hand of a king's daughter in marriage. And now he has to decide what to do about it.
This book has the dubious non-distinction of being compared with Tolkien and the distinction of having that comparison feel apt in some less usual ways. McKillip captures in Hed a similar feel as the rural life of the Shire, and in Morgon's dislike of the adventures thrust upon him, she presents it as a stronger valid choice. So many fantasies hurry their young protagonists away from their humble roots, showing that magic is clearly the superior choice. Morgon doesn't follow that attitude. Using the land-rule, the basic structure of McKillip's world that gives the rightful ruler of a country a deep understanding of that country's needs and functioning, McKillip shows a more painful sundering from a life that the hero liked, for a journey through magic that's perilous, frustrating, and in many ways worse.
McKillip also plays with history, following Tolkien's strong sense of tradition but approaching it from a different angle. Tolkien's historical medium was mythology and story. McKillip's is closer to historical fact. Morgon, and indeed most people of importance in the world, are adept with riddles, but riddles in this book are less something one would expect from the sphynx and more like historical fact combined with a lesson. A typical riddle asks some question of history or deed of a famous (or forgotten ruler), the answer being the story, and the stricture being some lesson to take from that story. Knowledge of the world, its past, the places and meanings of the people in it, and the location and nature of lost knowledge is vitally important. Questions to which no answer is known are unanswered riddles, and unanswered riddles are inherently dangerous. For a fantasy, it's an atypical take on the quest for understanding of the world, more open to everyone in the world than the normal path of magical power.
There is magic, prophecy, and an unregarded young man from a backwater of the world who turns out to be an awaited person of great power, and at times, The Riddle-Master of Hed followed the standard script a bit too closely. There's just enough difference, though, to reward digging at the foundations and thinking about what McKillip has changed. For one, there's a lack of obvious evil and obvious good, even if the world seems full of that at the start. For another, there's a lot of nuance in the history and debate over the lessons to be drawn from it. As the story progresses and draws into question some of the foundations of the world, McKillip incorporates a canny sense of wrongness, a feeling that matters are quite a bit more complicated and difficult than it first appeared. The surface plot is a standard "collect the wise men" travelogue and suffers for it, but I kept coming back to and picking apart what lay underneath it.
Alas, the ending is just frustrating. It's a cliff-hanger that's worse than a cliff-hanger since the next book doesn't even pick up at the cliff. After delivering the climax that one knew was coming for much of the book, it offers no denouement or explanation whatsoever. I admire the audacity with which McKillip overturns some genre expectations, but there are good reasons for the normal dramatic structure. The book suffers from the excessively abrupt curtain. It helps some to have the next book on-hand and consider this more part one than a book in its own right, but even then, The Riddle-Master of Hed is better read for the feel of its world and for McKillip's effective descriptions than for its plot structure.
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