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Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip (thoughts)

June 25, 2012

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. :)

22 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    June 25, 2012 10:18 pm

    Whoa, I recently read this one, too! And I felt the same way- WHY haven’t I read McKillip before? I think this cover turned me off, I must admit. But lovely story :-)

  2. June 25, 2012 10:58 pm

    I fell in love with her Riddle-Master series, and found The Forgotten Beasts of Eld to be really interesting, though perhaps less gripping to me. Thanks for reminding me that I need to explore her again. She really comes at her fantasy writing in a sort of refreshing and ethereal way that reminds me of the lays of Marie de France, or le Morte d’Arthur, or Sir Gawain. Bottom line, it doesn’t feel merely commercial like a lot of stuff these days, and FEELS like it belongs amidst the fantastic tradition that stretches all the way back to Beowulf.

  3. June 25, 2012 11:31 pm

    I obviously need to read this. I even own it!!

  4. Kristen M. permalink
    June 26, 2012 1:21 am

    I’ve heard of McKillip but never picked up any of her books. Obviously I need to change that soon! It’s awesome to discover a new favorite author. :)

  5. Carl V. permalink
    June 26, 2012 5:39 am

    I have my brother to thank for my introduction to Patricia A. McKillip. When we were both young kids, pre-teen I believe, he bought me a book of hers and I fell in love. It was the first pure fantasy that I can recall reading and she became, and still is, a favorite. I do her great injustices every time one of her books comes out as I purchase it right away and leave it sit unread. I have her last 3, I believe, to read, including this one. It is a true shame because she is a marvelously lyrical writer. Her prose is something special and well worth digging in to. My favorite of hers thus far is Ombria in Shadow, but I have yet to be disappointed with any of her books.

  6. June 26, 2012 8:24 am

    Maybe I tried the wrong Patricia McKillip to start with? I read the Forgotten Beasts of Eld and it was nice, but I wasn’t too impressed. I never read any more of her books after that…

    • Carl V. permalink
      June 26, 2012 9:01 am

      That is a sweet book but it is very old and not entirely indicative of her style. I’d try something much more recent. This might be a good one to start with, or Ombria in Shadow.

  7. June 26, 2012 9:37 am

    I love the way that she can perfectly convey a fairy-tale atmosphere while at the same time adding a touch of maturity. Her language is simply beautiful. :)

  8. June 26, 2012 10:05 am

    Oh, her as well! I read The Secret Beasts of Eld when I was very young indeed, and reread it throughout my teen years. I really love her more recent books (including this one) and think she is such a marvellous writer: like you say, able to convey the sense of a fairy tale in her writing.

  9. June 26, 2012 10:30 am

    My first one was The Book of Atrix Wolfe. She has been a favorite ever since. I’m glad you discovered her.

  10. Claudia permalink
    June 26, 2012 11:35 am

    Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I downloaded a sample chapter onto my Kindle and read it during my lunch break. I am hooked! Looking forward now to reading the book completely. Cheers :)

  11. June 26, 2012 2:10 pm

    I love books about bookish heroines, so this sounds like a must read. Thanks for sharing!

  12. June 26, 2012 5:53 pm

    I’m never tempted to read books like this, but you hooked me with the alphabet!

    (Also with an orphan raised by librarians.)

  13. June 27, 2012 1:24 am

    I’m another huge McKillip fan. I found the Riddle-Master books in the library as a teen and just loved them, reading most of what she’s written since.

    While it’s a YA story, I just love The Changeling Sea, which is a delightful little book.

    Other favourites are Song of the Basilisk and The Bell at Sealey Head.

    I have her latest, The Bards of Bone Plain on the bookshelf, but haven’t read it yet. Like Carl, I buy her books as soon as they come out – they are published in the most beautiful little hardcovers that are smaller than the usual size and the Kinyuko Y.Craft covers are perfect for them – but sometimes it takes me a while to read them.

    • Carl V. permalink
      June 27, 2012 6:01 am

      Rocalisa, I LOVE Kinuko Y. Craft’s covers. Her illustrations and McKillip’s novels were a match made in heaven. The art director who puts them together deserves huge kudos. My wife or daughter buys me a Kinuko Y. Craft puzzle every Christmas and we spend part of Christmas vacation putting it together. It is a wonderful treat every year. And they are gorgeous images to look at in puzzle form.

      • June 27, 2012 2:40 pm

        Carl, I’m a cross stitcher and there’s a company that has the right to chart Kinuko Y. Craft’s art. They are huge and I haven’t started any yet, but I’ve bought a couple and dream that one day I’ll have the time and energy to tackle one.

      • Carl V. permalink
        June 27, 2012 2:49 pm

        I bet those would be amazing. And extremely complicated.

  14. June 27, 2012 12:23 pm

    Eva, you know I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but your review has me really interested in this one! I’ll have to consider giving it a try.

  15. June 27, 2012 4:07 pm

    I’ve passed Patricia McKillip’s books on library shelves for years and somehow never reached out to grab one. Clearly I need to. I love fairy-tale fantasy with bookish heroines. (ala Robin McKinley and Patricia Wrede)

    • June 28, 2012 9:09 pm

      Biblioglobal — the 2 authors you mention, plus McKillip, make up my master triumvirate of must read fantasy ;)

      • June 28, 2012 11:44 pm

        In that case I definitely must read McKillip! (As clearly you have very good taste!)

  16. July 18, 2012 3:56 am

    I just looked in the library catalogue and it seems they own this one, and one of McKillip’s other novels. Given my recent forays into the land of fairy tales I instantly put it on my wishlist. Between you and Ana reviewing one of her books (sadly, the forgotten beast of eld isn’t owned by any of the regional libraries) these have become priority reads now :)

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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