The Book of Atrix Wolfe, by Patricia McKillip

the-book-of-atrix-wolfe-by-patricia-mckillip coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Ace
Published: 1995
Reviewer Rating: three and a half stars
Book Review by David Hart

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Speculative Fiction writing, like all human endeavor, can range from excellent to atrocious. Most authors are consistent enough to occupy a fairly small part of that spectrum, but the McKillip books that I’ve read to date have spanned most of it: from the most excellent Riddle-Master trilogy, through the reasonable “Forgotten Beasts of Eld” and “The Sorceress and the Cygnet”, to “Winter Rose” (a very thin veneer of fantasy over Romantic fiction, that I didn’t finish). So starting another of her books is always something of an adventure.

Atrix Wolfe is the oldest and strongest mage in Chaumenard, a country of peaceful mages and scholars. The book starts with him being drawn to a siege in a neighboring country, Pelucir, which is being attacked. The aggressors intend to attack Chaumenard next. On hearing this, despite a long life dedicated to peace, Wolfe loses his temper and creates a powerful ‘Herne the Hunter’ figure who kills both sides indiscriminately. Worse, unknown to Wolfe, the consort and daughter of the local fairy queen were watching and were drawn into the spell. In remorse he abjures magic and departs to live anonymously in the mountains.

20 years later, Wolfe’s spell-book is discovered by the prince of Pelucir. He is promptly kidnapped by the fairy queen, who would quite like her family back. Most of the book then consists of the prince’s brother hunting for the prince, the prince hunting for Wolfe, everyone hunting for the queen’s daughter, and the Hunter hunting everyone.

If you’re thinking that I’ve revealed too much of the plot, don’t worry: McKillip does the same. The 20-years-ago bit is contained in the 12 page prologue, and the rest is disclosed in the next 40 pages, including the whereabouts of the missing daughter. So for most of the book the only mystery for the reader is how long it is going to take the characters to get themselves sorted out. Worse, Wolfe’s final resolution of the magical situation turns out to be simple and obvious, leaving the reader wondering why he didn’t do it much earlier.

What then is good about the book? It’s not the depth of characterization, which as usual with McKillip is not profound (the Riddle-Master trilogy is the honorable exception to this). It’s not that this is a ‘Hero saves the universe from evil’ epic, because it isn’t; with the same exception, McKillip tends to set her characters local problems, which mostly affect only themselves. And yet from a different viewpoint, these can be seen as the book’s virtues, if you consider that the story really is a fairy tale. Just as a fairy tale like Cinderella features a prince of small kingdom, of no global importance, so with the prince of Pelucir. Just as the motivation of the wolf in ‘Red Riding Hood’ is little explored, so with Wolfe here. Furthermore, the whole feel of the book is that of a fairy tale: atmospheric, slightly surreal.

If that is the sort of fantasy that you like, you will enjoy the book more than would, say, an Eddings/Donaldson/Feist fan. But for anyone it is perfectly readable; just accept it for what it is, and don’t expect another Riddle-Master.

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