Patricia McKillip is one of the most acclaimed fantasy writers of the last 40 years, having won or been nominated for many awards in the genre (Hugo, World Fantasy, Nebula, Mythopoeic) and is also the recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Perhaps her best known work is the Riddle-Master trilogy, the subject of this installment of The Completist. The trilogy is one of those “foundational” fantasy series; a lot of people who have been genre readers for much of their life have read it early in their lives and point to it as one that helped to put them or keep them on the road known as the fantasy genre.
The three books in the series are The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976), Heir of Sea and Fire (1977), and Harpist in the Wind (1979). The first novel in the trilogy, features Prince Morgon as the protagonist and the titular Riddle-Master of Hed. Hed is a nation that has traditionally kept to itself, one of many nations under the ultimate purvey of The High One. Morgon is marked; he has three unexplained stars on his forehead and is further differentiated from many of his predecessors: he has traveled outside of his rural island to attend the Caithnard College of Riddlery. The concept of a college of riddles is just the first of many fantastical conceits McKillip brings into this series. As it turns out, Morgon won a riddle-contest against the ghost of the King Peven of Aum, the prize of which is the crown his sister finds hidden under her bed.
The High One’s harpist, Deth is visiting Hed to pass along his condolences for the death of Morgon’s parents. During this visit, Deth notices the three stars on Morgon’s head. Deth also informs Morgon that Princess Raederle, daughter of Mathom, the King of An, was pledged by her father to marry the winner of the riddle contest. So Morgon’s quest unfurls: with his companion named Deth he travels to Raederle’s land. In crossing the sea from their island of Hed, the companions’ ship is attacked by shapechangers, Morgon and Deth are separated for a while, and Morgon loses both his memory and ability to speak. Deth eventually finds Morgon, helps his companion regain his memories and speech and change their goal: meet with the High One to discuss the shapechangers. Along the way, he befriends other rulers and begins to gain magical abilities before discovering the true nature of the High One. The novel ends somewhat abruptly, which at the time it was first published may have been frustrating. Luckily for today’s readers, the three books are available in a handy omnibus from Ace (which is how I first read the series) and Gollancz.
The second novel in the trilogy, Heir of Sea and Fire, doesn’t pick up Morgon’s story. Rather, it focuses on Raederle about a year laterand her search for her betrothed Morgon, who is presumed dead. As the title of the first installment in the trilogy refers to the protagonist Morgon, so is Raederle the Heir of the title. Because Morgon is reported and assumed to be dead, the ruler-ship of Hed passes to his brother Eliard. There is a great deal of political unrest between and within the various nations. Raederle, the daughter of another ruler Lyra, and Morgon’s sister Tristan, convince the captain of Raederle’s guard to find Morgon. It isn’t often in fantasy that the princesses go out to save the prince, but that’s exactly what happens here and it couldn’t be a more natural thing in this story.
Along the way, the group hears about the shapechangers who tried to kill Morgon. They also learn that past rulers of Raederle’s land have ties to the shapechangers and subsequently, that Raederle has shapechanger blood flowing through her veins. Raederle also learns that Morgon is indeed alive and is pursued by magical and ancient beings like the shapeshifters as well as the long-lived wizard Ghisteslwchlohm.
Harpist in the Wind brings Morgon and Raederle together as they seek the answer to the many questions which have arisen along their journeys. Many of those questions are related to the High One and the nature of his rule as well as Morgon’s destiny. Morgon and Raederle are joined by wizards, formerly prisoners of wizard Ghisteslwchlohm who came into conflict with Morgon previously. Morgon learns more about the lands and their laws; how each ruler is tied inextricably to the land, and how the ruler knows all that lives within their land. As such, the High One, as supreme ruler of all lands, has the same connection to all lands.
With shapechangers as central conceit, the identity of many characters and figures can easily come into question. Such is the case with Deth, the High One as well as many of the wizards who travel with or are encountered by Raederle and Morgon. Those stars on Morgon’s head mentioned earlier? Yeah, those are part of what mark him has the land heir of the High One. This eventually leads to a final confrontation with Ghisteslwchlohm as Morgon comes into a full understanding of who he is and what his powers are.
It has been many years since I originally read these books…or rather one book in the omnibus format I own. The story has some superficial elements/tropes closely associated with the genre like a secondary world, coming of age/Bildungsroman story, a hidden heir, as well as wizards, magic and strange/fantastical creatures. While those fantastical elements are the set dressings which draw the reader into the story, what makes the series so special is McKillip’s elegant, lovely and evocative prose that makes for a wonderful ‘conversation’ between reader and writer. Although the magical elements are ever-present, McKillip is able to evoke these elements in such a way that they simply are a part of the world Morgon and Raederle inhabit.
The fact that the first novel, and overreaching title of this series is “Riddlemaster” is very telling. Riddles are at their heart of the story, a form of puzzle or game, and the series can be seen as layers of riddles and hidden meanings. This is most evident in the enigmas of Deth and the High One, although Morgon gains the title of Riddle-master in the first novel, it is perhaps the High One and the wizard Ghisteslwchlohm who both play the longest riddle game of all.
Like many of the best fantasies, McKillip has provided a wonderful backdrop of history and a deep world these characters populate. There’s a great rd to the wizards of the world as well as the races which populate the many lands, including the long gone “Earth Masters.” Just the name alone – Earth Masters – is a great conjuration to spark the imagination. What works best is the amount of detail she provides. The reader isn’t overburdened by infodumps, rather, history is revealed in pieces throughout the narrative. As I indicated above, this rich world comes through as a conversation, between the reader and the narrative. It allows the reader to connect with the world and become something of an active participant in the story.
There are a great relationships at the heart of these stories; a powerful bond of friendship and love at the heart of Morgon and Raederle’s romance. There’s an understanding between them that grows as the series progresses, ans what makes this work so magically is through most of the three novels, we barely see Raederle and Morgon together, but that doesn’t diminish their relationship. If anything, it makes that much more believable. There’s also a strong bond of friendship and companionship between those two and Deth, despite the mystery surrounding the man.
The series is hopeful and despite the dark tidings which beset our heroes and hardships they endure, there is a hopeful tone to the story, a great deal of positivity and upbeat nature. Nearly forty years later, the Riddle-Master trilogy remains a standard of fantasy as a whole, and epic fantasy specifically. This is one of those stories and sets of books you hand a young reader eager to enmesh themselves in magical lands and to keep them hooked. Riddle-Master is a complete, beautiful story in three relatively short volumes of near perfection. In an age when single volumes of some fantasy series are larger than the omnibus containing these three volumes, it is refreshing to experience a fantastic tale that is so elegant, concise, lyrical and charming. There’s a reason the omnibus has remained in print since 1999 (ACE) here in the US and through Gollancz in the UK since 2001.
Back when I covered Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion, I mentioned how that trilogy belonged in the Omnibus Hall of Fame. The very same can be said of McKillip’s Riddle-Master omnibus and for me, it is one of the earliest entries in that Hall of Fame based on the publication date of the original books in the trilogy (late 1970s), when the omnibus was published (1999) and when I read it (2000).