The Riddle-Master of Hed • 1976 • Fantasy novel by Patricia A. McKillip

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a commemorative read, Patricia McKillip passed away just recently.

Synopsis: Hed is a backwater island featuring only farmers and swineheards, but no heroes at all. In this contemplative country lives Morgon, Lord of Hed, happily as a farmer. Turns out that he’s not without ambitions, as he went to the main country to win a riddle contest with a malicious ghost, unlike the many men who tried before him and lost their lifes. But his siblings didn’t know about that until recently, because Morgon didn’t wave around the winner’s crown. 

Turns out, that more mysterious things go around Morgon. First of all, he’s got a good education at the riddle-masters’ university in Caithnard. Actually, the term riddle is slightly misleading – it’s the knowledge about a historical fact, its context plus an interpretation called “stricture” why the knowledge is important. 

“[The riddle]‘Who was Re of Aum?’” [..]
[The solution]‘Re of Aum offended the Lord of Hel once and became so frightened that he had a great wall built around his house in fear of revenge. He hired a stranger to build it, who promised him a wall no man could destroy or climb, either by force or by wizardry. The wall was built; the stranger took his pay; and Re at last felt secure. One day, when he decided that the Lord of Hel had realized the futility of revenge, he decided to venture out of his lands. And then he travelled around his wall three times but found no gate to let him out. And slowly he realized that the Lord of Hel himself had built that wall.’
[The stricture] ‘Never let a stranger build walls around you’”

Winning the contest entitled him to the master’s robe of the riddle-masters, and more importantly the hand of Raderle, princess of An (who will be the main protagonist of the second book).

Morgon goes on a quest to get some answers from The High One on the Erlenstar Mountain. Crossing the sea, he gets assailed, hit in the head, looses his memories, washed ashore, spending several weeks with an archaeologist Astrin. There, he finds a harp with three stars, just like the stars marking his forehead. Nobody else brings forth sound from this famous harp, only Morgan can play it, and this brings back his memories.

 From there, Morgon passes several kingdoms with their ages old rulers, some of them several hundred years old. It’s a strange world, where the wizards went lost, and Morgon wants to find out the reasons. 

Review: I’ve read this trilogy back in the 1980s and was very reluctant picking it up again after all this time. I feared that I couldn’t trust my teenager self who really liked it. Sometimes, it’s better to just let the good memories in peace and not revisit it with older, more critical eyes. Now, I’m glad to report that I can recommend it to you. 

It’s got a different style than what would be published now, reminding me heavily of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series. It’s really short for a novel with only some 240 pages. McKillip relies on the reader figuring out lots of world-building and following some jumps in the narration. Don’t expect much sword-swinging, the style is more lyrical and maybe dreamlike. Also, the protagonist remains rather distant, which is very typical for mythopoetical fantasy authors of that time, but could bother readers who are more accustomed to tight third person or even first person narrations. As a lover of Tolkien and LeGuin, you can always throw a heap of books in that style at me, and I’ll feed through them unstoppable. 

While the quest structure might sound trivial like yet-another-Campbells-heroes-journey, it adds some more layers. Morgon is a reluctant hero who nearly turns back to his farmers. I can’t think of another protagonist who nearly threw away everything after the 80% mark and where I didn’t know if he’d go just the last station. These stations, where Morgon travels through kingdom after kingdom, meets the ruler, picks up another piece of wisdom, might sound boring, but they are really entertaining because they are so different. Those meetings are deeply personal and some of them stay with me longer. 

Have you read McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld (my review)? This is rather similar in style and structure and offers more of that kind.  

Meta: isfdb, goodreads.

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2 Responses to The Riddle-Master of Hed • 1976 • Fantasy novel by Patricia A. McKillip

  1. piotrek says:

    Great review, if only the occasion wasn’t so sad… I like “The Riddle-Master…” very much, for exactly the reasons you enumerate. Great piece of classic fantasy that brings both Le Guin and Tolkien to mind.
    It feels different that many of her other books, like “Winter Rose”, but is also beautifully written and well-worth reader’s time. McKillip might be gone, but her books will stay with us!

    Liked by 1 person

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