Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip (thoughts)
How have I never heard of Patricia McKillip before?! The day before we started our road trip to Colorado , I browsed the library shelves looking for a few books to take along. I’m still in my fantasy mood, and I happened to see two of McKillip’s books: The Bell at Sealey Head and Alphabet of Thorn. Since I’d never read her before, I tried myself to be reasonable and only choose one, but both of the summaries sounded so irresistible that both ended up in my bag. And I’m so glad that they did, because I think I’ve found a new favourite author!
McKillip is just my style of fantasy writer: a little bit sweet and old-fashioned, with a storytelling ability so powerful it’s occasionally given me goosebumps, a taste for strong, bookish heroines, and an approach more reminiscent of fairy tales than epic fantasy. In other words, I cannot wait to get back to Texas so I can request more of her books!
In the meantime, I’ll tell you a bit about the first of the two novels that converted me. I picked up Alphabet of Thorn first, because the heroine is an orphan raised by librarians and now living in the Royal Library as a specialist in puzzling out and translating books in unknown alphabets. How could I resist?! One such book drives the plot: Nepenthe acquires a book written in a strange, thorny alphabet that she finds oddly compelling. As she works on translating it, and as we the actual readers get to read chapters along with her, other events are going on the palace related to the coronation of a young new queen. The three storylines become more and more interwoven until they all collide. I find the multiple storyline approach a tricky one, particularly when it involves a book-within-a-book. While I love the device on a theoretical level, in practice I often end up more invested in one plot/set of characters than another and thus end up impatiently flying through one storyline to get to another. Luckily, McKillip is a master, at both creating completely vivid and loveable characters and plot pacing; not once did I check how many pages were left in a chapter or wish I could get back to my favourite character. They were all favourites! She also manages to address some big, fun issues, such as the nature of history and how stories get passed down/changed, the various forms power can take, and of course the particular power of books. I adored every page, and it’s the kind of book I definitely want to reread; not only do I think it would reward a second visit, but I just plain miss the characters. ;)
I highly, highly recommend Alphabet of Thorn to anyone who loves fairy tales or bookish novels or just a story that sweeps you away. The feminist twists are just the icing on the cake!
P.S. Thanks for all of the welcome back comments! I’ll be catching up w everyone’s blogs and leaving as many comments as I can (off steroids again so hands will be cranky until I can try my new treatment) shortly. :)