I picked this book up recently at What the Book? in Seoul. McKillip is not one of the more well known authors, but I’ve read one of her previous works, The Riddle-Master Trilogy, and remembered it as interesting, low-key, well written, but a little slow and dull. Like that previous story, The Book of Atrix Wolfe is short, gentle, thoughtful, but less than totally gripping. Even at less than 250 pages, it took me a long time to get through it – I had other things that just seemed to demand my attention more.
However, I still liked the novel.
The story starts with a prologue set twenty years before the main narrative takes places and shows how one of the land’s most powerful wizards – Atrix Wolfe – is persuaded, coerced – tricked? I’m still not entirely clear on the motivation – into working some sorcery to facilitate a war of conquest. The resulting magical entity is uncontrollable and kills many and ends the war. The Hunter is awakened a couple of decades later when the prince born on the night of the slaughter discovers a paradoxical spellbook written by the wizard. The spell that created the Hunter turns out to have wreaked devastation beyond the world of mortals; the fey Queen of the Wood has been seeking her lost daughter for two decades.
The main character, Prince Talis Pelucir, is a bespectacled trainee wizard whose parents were killed (one directly, one indirectly) by a malevolent magical being when he was a baby. Remind you of anyone? This book was published a couple of years before Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, though, so it’s OK.
Another main character is called Sorrow – or Saro (in an American accent I suppose they’re homophones) – and sorrow is a major theme of the novel. Everyone’s lives have been overshadowed by the murder committed by the Hunter – and, inasmuch as the Hunter is his proxy, by Atrix Wolfe himself.
Another theme is the paradoxical nature of the spells written in the eponymous book. When trying to extinguish a candle flame, Talis instead shatters every nearby mirror. The ambiguously named Saro is unable to speak, and yet she is capable of magic, although the spells often rely on language. I suppose you can read into this the message that language is a kind of magic – why else do we read fiction, if not to be enchanted by things that are not real and yet somehow true?
I enjoyed reading the shapeshifting battles of Atrix against the Hunter. Wolfe changes himself into animals, leaves, stones, stone, water in his efforts to evade his overly puissant creation. The mute version of Saro has lived her life in the Pelucir castle kitchen, working as a pot scrubber. The environment and social hierarchy of the kitchen is also fascinating; the place is populated with a head cook, a tray mistress, undercooks, pluckers, spit boys, mincers, peelers, musicians (who announce meals with a fanfare) and more.
I think The Book of Atrix Wolfe is a better story than The Riddle-Master books, and I really wanted to be more engrossed by it than I was. It has a uniquely gentle and subtle but definitely high fantasy feel to it. I’m going to try to pay better attention to the next Patricia McKillip book I read.