The second novel to win in the Locus Fantasy category is Patricia McKillip’s Harpist in the Wind, the third novel in her Riddle-master trilogy. McKillip also won the first World Fantasy Award – she really is one of the founders of the genre in the second generation after Tolkien.
The Riddle-master trilogy takes place in a world of small kingdoms. Every king has an inherited power called the land-rule – a mystical ability to run the kingdom better. There is also a mysterious being/man named the High One – a sort of immortal uber-king that no one ever sees. In the first novel, The Riddle Master of Hed, we meet Morgon, the young king of a small, out-of-the-way kingdom of Hed. Morgon was born, Harry Potter-like, with the image of three stars on his forehead. When he wins a crown in a riddle-off, he learns from the harpist Deth that this crown gives him the right to marry a princess named Raederle. He goes to claim his prize but gets sidetracked when he is attacked by mysterious shape-shifters. He then takes up the new quest of finding the High-One to unravel why he has been targeted, and what this all has to do with the stars on his forehead. The second novel Heir of Sea and Fire, follows Raederle’s quest to find Morgon and deepens some of these mysteries.
Harpist in the Wind finally brings all of these storylines to a head. In the background, the kingdoms are now engulfed in war, as the shapeshifters, an evil wizard with the simple name of Ghistelwchlohm, and an army of undead are all plaguing the land. Meanwhile, Morgon and Raederle try to solve the various mysteries that McKillip keeps juggling. The story does get a fairly satisfying resolution, but one that I saw coming from very early on despite having only skimmed the first two books. Suffice it to say that Morgon’s quest to understand “the High One” and his various contests with the harpist Deth (get it…death?) are all a great big metaphor for humanity’s attempt to understand the meaning of life, the nature of God, etc.
It’s all well executed, McKillip is a good writer, and the characters are convincing enough (the relationship between Morgon and Raederle is nicely rendered early in the third novel…though it kind of falls away in the epic events that follow). Still, this left me cold. For me, fantasy is at its worst when it soars above all real world concerns and comes out as fairy tale, and this is something that McKillip has a penchant for. I'm attracted to the idea of world building, but the world has to feel real to me. That doesn't mean that there can't be wizards and magical creatures and mystic weapons, but they need to have an internal logic - the world needs a foundation in practical economy and realistic ecology, and these ideas need to be incorporated into that foundation and work within it.
A good fantasy world also has a rich sense of history - something that Tolkien achieved marvelously in The Lord of the Rings. McKillip tries for this in Riddle-master (in fact, the riddles are closer to interpretive questions about the past than actual riddles), but really we get a couple of big events, like the fall of wizards (though wizards manage to show up all the time in this series anyway). Otherwise, we seem to have a static world of small and simple kingdoms.
Other than a general obsession with livestock in the first two books (which is a very nice touch and very "real" feeling for this kind of medieval world), I never felt grounded in the world of Riddle-master. Yes, Morgon is from a quiet shire-like kingdom, but he's still a king. Pretty much everyone we meet is either a wizard or from a royal family, and they're all constantly sailing or riding around on a mythic quest. The first Dragon Warrior game for 8-bit Nintendo had a richer and more varied world. Land-rule - the idea that kings have a magical relationship and understanding of their land - is a very interesting idea, but it feels a whole lot like the Divine Right of Kings. Inherited power is a great concept for fantasy works to explore, but I always wince when they celebrate it.
Maybe these are just my issues, but I will say that I've enjoyed a lot of fantasy novels in the past, and McKillip's works, so far, seem to be especially guilty of these fairy tale failings.