Muses — Patricia A. McKillip (February 29, 1948 – May 6, 2022) 

I love words. Beautiful language and prose is my jam. I can taste the quality of prose in a synaesethic kind of way. Some prose has a “clean” taste, like unsalted butter. And some prose is rich and luxurious, like a chocolate truffle. I fell in love with fantasy fiction because the language of myth and fairytale has a certain flavor that I find irresistible. It’s floral, like vanilla, and bitter like dark chocolate with a mouthfeel like clotted cream. 

And no-one captured that mythic flavor in prose more than Patricia A McKillip. I read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld when I was a teenager and immediately wrote her fan letter, (which was returned as undeliverable). The elegiac tone she’d captured was singularly haunting. The prose sang, was almost like a spell cast. She kept writing in that mode for all of career in many books—The Alphabet of Thorn, Solstice Wood, The Book of Atrix Wolfe—and many others. Her words were—-are—-incantatory and numinous. They swim and float across the page. Sometimes dismissed as flowery or purple, her language is central to the dreamlike plots of her novels. There is a jewel-like precision to her craft that I think that some critics miss. A couple of critics (and a friend) referred to her work with fairy tales as being the lighter cousin to Tanith Lee’s word-drunk. But I think there’s a tone of deep time and profound sorrow that always played in the background of her writing. Her characters always seemed melancholic, even if they were clever or humorous.

I had the pleasure of meeting McKillip a decade or so ago in New York. She was in town for a book reading, and I went out to lunch with her, Ellen Datlow, Jane Yolen and her husband David Lunde. She was sweet and soft-spoken, and I felt that I was in the presence of quiet genius.  McKillip’s ethereal work is a deep influence (I’m ethereallad on Social Media partially inspired by her).  I find her influence in many contemporary fantasists. Her voice will be missed.

Gender & Reading: Confessions of a Female Man (apologies to Joanna Russ)

When I was in Junior High, I interned one afternoon a week at the Chesire Cat Children’s Bookstore. Located in upper Chevy Chase, on the DC side, it was like heaven for a nascent bibliophile like me. (Side note: my version/vision of Heaven would be an endless library of books). The highlight of my time there was when one of the favorite authors did a reading. I was “off the clock” at the time, and to me, writers are rock stars. I was nervous as I presented my copy of her then new book, gushed how much I loved her writing. Then she said something that kind of disappointed me. (And I learned that all idols have feet of clay). She remarked that it was interesting that I was even buying her current book, because it was written for girls.

I remember walking away from that meeting feeling a mixture of “So what?” and a feeling of shame. Junior High is a caste system, where gender roles are rigidly proscribed. I already had been the victim of bullies and if I wasn’t called “faggot” then, it was only because the kids didn’t know the word. Fortunately, I went with the first feeling, and read the “girly” book. And was quite pleased that I had. The novel was one of the author’s best and I heartily recommend it to anyone of any gender for insight into sibling rivalry.

The issue of gender and reading is something that comes up constantly. Every now and then, some (g)as(s)bag will make a fatuous pronouncement about women authors, or claim that they can tell the difference between men and women’s writing. I can’t. I have read slush for both fiction markets and for admissions committees for writing programs, and when you strip away the name, I can not tell. Some of the most “flowery” descriptive language comes from men, and some of the most “cold” and cynical writing comes from women. This goes across genre. In my experience, the reason that people “gender” writing is because they find one gender’s writing inferior and use such words as “sentimental” and “relationship-oriented” to steer “serious” or male readers away.

This is a terrible idea, and boys will miss out on some great literature. If I had followed reading along “appropriate” gender lines, I would have missed books by LeGuin, Joan Didion, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Walker. Toni Morrison’s underrated novel Tar Baby was, at one point, marketed as Women’s Fiction, since it featured a love story. If I had paid attention to that, I would have missed the rich, mythopoetic subtexts in the novel.

As I grew, I read everything that interested me, whether or not it was written for boys or for girls. One of my favorite books was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, by Patricia McKillip. When I was researching the author in the library (to write a fan letter), I came across a bit of criticism about the novel being ‘girly.’ It was ‘girly,’ presumably, because the main character is a powerful female wizard who isn’t an ass-kicking action girl. “So what,” I said to myself, thinking that the critic was afraid of girl-cooties and therefore had missed the point of the story.

If women authors have girl cooties, I want to collect said cooties.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, 70's cover
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, 70’s cover

REVIEW: The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia A. McKillip

Above is the Kinuko Craft cover for Patricia A McKillip’s THE BARDS OF BONE PLAIN. Take a gander at it. It’s intricate, full of enchantment, done in a neo-classical style. Sylph-like ladies in translucent fabrics, butterflies exhaling from golden harps, twisty hidden images. Craft’s cover art mimics McKillip’s wordcraft. Richly embroidered filmy lacy language, full of opacity and mystery. I mostly read McKillip to revel in writing on the sentence level. The new book has all of the hallmarks of McKillip’s fiction in that regard.

The novel is set both in the past and present of the kingdom of Belden. The past sections are more medieval and center around a wandering bard and his trials and tribulations. The present sections center around a bardic school, located in the capital city. The present here has steam-powered technology, perhaps a nod to the current preoccupation of steampunk. The present plot line mostly meanders and has a “cozy” non-magical fantasy-of-manners feel of books like, say Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint while the past storyline is very Celtic-based high fantasy. The past plotline has more oomph, while the present plotline is more character-driven. Of course, the two plotlines eventually, and slowly, converge. The themes–magic hidden in language and music–are McKillip’s stalwart themes.

The beautiful writing, full of lovely images, however, does not hide the lack of narrative tension in the plot.  McKillip loves her quirky characters–which include an archaelogist princess and a bored but studious bard–to put them into too much danger. As a result, the sinister elements and subsequent suspense falls flat. Still, THE BARDS OF BONE PLAIN, if kind of slight, is a wonderful introduction to McKillip’s oeuvre.

Patricia A. McKillip on her fiction.

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