October 2006

Colleen Mondor


Solstice Wood and Od Magic by Patricia McKillip

I recently read Patricia McKillip’s Solstice Wood after being drawn in by the description of a young bookstore owner who must travel home for her grandfather’s funeral and face an old family secret that includes “the woods which so beguiled -- and frightened -- her…” I know the “sudden revelation of a family secret” plot device has been used a zillion times in literature, but you can not name a family isn’t sitting on at least a half dozen secrets they desperately don’t want their friends/neighbors/co-workers to know. (Who’s gay, who’s pregnant, who used to be pregnant -- or used to be gay -- who drinks too much, takes too many pills, eats a whole pound cake every night before bedtime, etc.) In the case of Sylvia Lynn’s family, the secret is a bit more fantastic then most, as it involves a long and close relationship with faerie. For Sylvia, the truth is especially difficult to hear as it involves her deceased mother and unknown father.

One of the first and best surprises about Solstice, is that the chapters are told from alternating points of view that also cross multiple generations. Sylvia is heard from, as well as her teenage cousin Tyler, her grandmother, Iris, and old family friend, Owen. (There’s also a changeling who weighs in with opinions but he doesn’t show up until later.) Slowly, Sylvia and the reader learn that there is not just one story to be found in the history of the Lynns and faerie, but in fact there are many different secrets and points of view to consider. For example, the true nature of Iris’s friendly weekly gathering of the Fiber Guild: what seemed to be a bunch of local women getting together to knit, sew, and embroider is actually dedicated to preserving a separation between our world and faerie, and they are ruthlessly adept at keeping that separation solid. In the end, it is what happens to Tyler that proves to be the catalyst Iris has long dreaded, but Sylvia sees as a possibility for a new future. Revelations abound by the book’s final chapters, all of them pointing to new futures for everyone involved. In all, it was quite the satisfying urban fantasy (rural fantasy?) and I was delighted by the very modern take on faerie that McKillip had crafted.

Then I read McKillip’s 2006 World Fantasy nominee Od Magic and had my head spun around by just what kind of fantasy writer she really is.

Od Magic is firmly set in an imaginative world created wholly by the author. This story begins with a young man, Brenden, who has lost most of his family to illness and seen his surviving sibling leave home in search of happiness. He is alone when he is visited by a woman who is nearly a giant with “any number of animals seemed to be crawling over her. Mice peered from one shoulder; a raven with a missing claw perched on the other. Lizards clung to her hair. A ferret stuck its head out of her cloak pocket. A great albino ox with a broken horn stood at a polite distance behind her… it carried an owl on its unbroken horn. A few mongrels, feral cats, and an old blind she-wolf sat waiting behind the ox.”

This is Od, and she has heard that Brenden has some talent when it comes to plants. She invites him to go to her school, “a school of magic” in the capital city of Kelior. They are in need of a new gardener and even though Brenden is mystified by how Od could have found him, he has no reason to turn down her invitation when all of his family is gone. He goes to Kelior and immediately finds himself in the middle of a major conflict that has been brewing between politics and magic for quite some time. Just as Tyler’s actions propel massive change in Solstice Wood, Brenden’s mere arrival does the same thing in Od Magic.

Neither of the young men are the sole catalysts in the books, however; they merely serve to be the most visible. In Od Magic in particular, there is much going on behind the scenes that has nothing at all to do with Brenden. McKillip is doing many things in her stories; she is showing us that what we think we know is not often correct, on both a personal level with the Lynn family in Solstice and a governmental one with the king and how he and his court try to manage the existence and education of magic in Od Magic. McKillip shows in both cases how easy it is to lose your way and get off course when open dialogue is squashed and autocracy takes over. The king fears magic, as magic could challenge his power – it has the potential to hurt him, so it must be controlled. Iris Lynn feels much the same way, although she does not fear a diminishment of her own power, but rather the strengthening of the opposition (faerie). It’s all about control in these worlds.

In the Twilight Quarter, where all of Kelior’s wildness comes out to play, Brenden crashes into the lives of everyone else until a challenge seems to be hanging over the entire kingdom for the very existence of freewill and magic. It is when writing about the Twilight Quarter that McKillip seems to relish in the sheer lushness of language and gives her readers some marvelously intense descriptive treats:

The Twilight Quarter was so named because during the brightest hours of the day it barely stirred; it only came to life as the sun sank. Then doors were unlocked, windows opened; odd shops without names lit their lamps; people spilled into the streets. Smells of meat and onions sizzled on flames, freshly baked bread, kettles of hot soup mingled with the market scents of fruits and animals and exotic spices. Stalls as solitary as closed tents during the day rolled up a wall to show bolts of cloth, toys, tools, jewels. Jugglers tossed flames; fortune-tellers spread their bright scarves, their cards and crystals. Idlers threw dice and pitched knives; great puppets strode the streets on stilts, enacted stories for a coin. Oil lamps and torches cast an illusion of day. Light plunged too easily and without warning into shadow, where things disturbing in their vagueness might or might not happen.

It is a magical place that McKillip has created with the Twilight Quarter, a place of mystery and mysticism that invites possibilities of brightness and sparkle that fill the senses of the citizens of Kelior. The king might seek to control magic, but he must still allow the Quarter to exist; he must still acknowledge that his people need magic in some form, even the simplest, in order to live.

McKillip senses this same need from her readers -- a desire to go places that offer possibilities that the world around us does not invite, even sometimes seems determined to deny. She gives us characters on quests to understand themselves and those around them. She writes fantasy according to the genre description, but really her works are of a most basic humanity. She is an author who takes her readers on a glorious ride with each new story, each new chapter. Solstice Wood and Od Magic are only the latest trips in her long history of fantastic travel, but they were both outstanding reads for me. Now I wait for what comes next from this talented author; someone who has clearly earned a spot as one of my favorite writers today.

Solstice Wood by Patricia McKillip
ISBN 044101366X
278 pages

Od Magic by Patricia McKillip
ISBN 0441013341
315 pages