Patricia A. McKillip
Completed 5/30/2022, Reviewed 5/30/2022
I feel like a bad person giving this book only three stars. It has the trademark McKillip prose (gorgeous and inspired), great world-building, and an inventive plot. But somehow the parts did not translate to a satisfying whole for me. It’s McKillip’s first novel. It won the 1975 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award as well. I just found out she passed away just three and half weeks before the writing of this review and I am devastated. I have loved almost all I’ve read of her body of work and want to read more as time goes on. So I feel even more like a heel for not appreciating this one more.
The story follows Sybel, a young girl who inherits several generations of wizardry. She lives alone on the mountain of Eld with a small menagerie of fantastical animals with whom she can communicate. Her only friend is a witch who lives nearby. One day, a man from the nearby kingdom comes bearing an infant, insisting she take care if it. She accedes, getting help from the witch as well as her beasts. Years later, Coren returns to tell her the infant is actually the king’s son. The boy, Tam, finds out and desires to be with his father. Sybel calls the king the way she calls her beasts. The king comes and Tam returns to the kingdom with him. Coren returns several times, and after a terrible encounter with a powerful wizard funded by the king, Sybel agrees to marry Coren. The thing about Coren is he is of a family that wants to kill the king. Sybel sees this as an opportunity to take revenge on the king while hopefully saving Tam.
Sybel is a well-developed but icily cold character. She does learn love by raising Tam and through her encounters with Coren. However, her icy exterior makes it hard to like and empathize with her. The other characters around her, Tam, Coren, the witch, and even the king, are more likeable. I rather liked the witch. Despite her isolation, she has a great way with people, unlike Sybel. I liked Tam as well. His longing to be with his natural father evoked the empathy I did not have for Sybel. He turns out rather well-rounded though he lived on Eld with only Sybel and the witch for human contact. I was also surprised by liking Coren’s war-mongering brothers, particularly Rok, who had a warmth that countered Sybel’s hard, cold nature.
The beasts were a wonderful part of the story. There was a dragon, a lion, a wild boar, and several others who Sybel had power over. She did love them and they loved her, despite her dominance over them. The boar was a riddle master who could speak verbally. He was the only one who could communicate with Coren. The dragon was fun, hoarding gold and breathing fire. I liked the lion the most, as he was like a huge teddy bear for Sybel and Tam.
Altogether, though, I had a hard time enjoying the book. I think not warming up to Sybel was the reason. She left me as cold as her disposition. I didn’t really care about her revenge on the king and I couldn’t understand Coren’s love for her. He loved her so much that he renounced his own vengeance on the king for killing one of his brothers. I know this is an unpopular opinion, as many, many readers gave this an average of about four stars on different sites, including my favorite, Worlds Without End. It is apparently a favorite reread among many. I guess you’ll have to read it yourself to make an informed opinion. I give it an okay three stars out of five.