Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip

After finishing Beguilement I was planning to start Des Kennedy's book An Ecology of Enchantment: A Year in the Life of a Garden, which in return for my mother borrowing my Mary Russel books by Laurie R. King, I snagged from her TBR pile. However, Beguilement put me in the mood for more fantasy, and one I was familiar with and loved. I think, a little bit, I was looking for that little extra something that I missed with Beguilement.

There are many wonderful things about Patricia McKillip's writing. I've heard it described as dark, but I can't imagine how; to me, it's full of light and wonder. There's no doubt that it's bittersweet. Nothing in a McKillip novel is ever perfectly, simply wonderful, other than the writing itself. But she strikes a perfect balance between sorrow and joy, and awe and fear.

In The Changeling Sea, we meet Periwinkle, a young woman whose parents have been stolen by the sea. Her father's fishing boat came back without him one day, and her mother has not been the same since: she stares out at the sea all day, every day, managing to care for herself just enough, and not at all for her daughter, because she is looking for the kingdom beneath the sea. So Peri is furious with the sea, and hexes it.

It doesn't sound like much, but this story is so rich that there's so much to enjoy.

I don't often think of McKillip's dialogue as being what attracts me to her writing so strongly, but she certainly writes dialogue extremely well. I've not encountered another writer who can make things that are unsaid as important as the things that are said in the same way McKillip can.

Here's one of my favourite moments from any book I've ever read:

There was a sudden crash. The inn door, with someone clinging to it, had blown open under a vigorous puff of spring wind. Peri looked up to see a stranger lose his balance on her tide. He danced upright a moment, and she noticed finally the blazing thunderheads and the bright blue sky beyond him. Then he tossed his arms and fell, slid down the hall to kick over her bucket before he washed to a halt under her astonished face.

They stared at one another, nose to nose. The stranger lay prone, panting slightly. Peri, wordless, sat back on her knees, her brush, suspended, dripping on the stranger's hair.

The stranger smiled after a moment. He was a small, dark-haired, wiry young man with skin the light polished brown of a hazelnut. His eyes were very odd: a vivid blue-green-gray, like stones glittering different colours under the sun. He turned on his side on the wet floor and cupped his chin in his palm.

"Who are you?"

"Peri." She was so suprised that her voice nearly jumped out of her.

"Periwinkle? Like the flower?" he asked.

"Is there a flower?" His eyes kept making her want to look at the put a color to them. But they eluded definition.

"Oh yes," the stranger said. "A lovely blue flower."

"I thought they were only snails."

"Why," the stranger asked gravely, "would you be named after a snail?"

"Because I didn't know there were flowers," Peri said fuzzily.

Reading this story again, I remember why I loved it the first time, and why I love it more every time I read it. I might get something new out of it each time, too, although I don't think I'd have to, to keep loving it. It's a very short little story, a novella, at only 137 pages. 137 pages packed with imagery and what is, at heart, a story that McKillip is very good at telling -- a story of two worlds that have brushed each other just a little bit, and the consequences of that happening. This is a theme she has worked with multiple times in many novels, some more explicitly than others, and I don't mind a bit.

I love how carefully crafted this book is. I know that the shorter the story is, the tighter it has to be to work well. McKillip manages a story that is so careful, full of detail, and well-done that there is no forebludgeoning, but at the end of the story there is not a single piece out of place, other than the pieces meant to be left out of place. That makes reading it again a treat because now I can look for the little things that I absorbed without understanding the first time, and understand where they fit. Unlike some books where knowing the ending makes the rest of the book somewhat boring to read, the re-reading is just better every time with this one. Which is why, I suspect, this is and remains one of my favourite books. As always, the ending brings with it a pang of sadness, not at the story itself, but that it's over.


Ana S. said...

It's a blasphemy that I've never read McKillip, isn't it? But I have The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and I will definitely change that this year. This book sounds beautiful as well. I love that scene you shared. I remember seeing a copy of it at a used bookstore in England last year, and now I really wish I'd bought it!

Unknown said...

Ah, but then, that just means you have a larger number of books of hers to read now, right? ;) I felt much the same way about my minimal Pratchett reading.

I'll be honest: I didn't like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld as much as I like some of her other books. But I get the impression that I'm in the minority here. I'm not sure what it was. I own it, so I might try again sometime.

I think my "favourite" McKillip is a three-way tie between The Changeling Sea, Riddle-Master (it's an omnibus, so I get 3 for the price of 1), and Od Magic, with Ombria in Shadow coming close behind. There's lots of wonderful reading there...

Jill said...

I enjoyed Forgotten Beasts when I read it, but later on I remember being surprised that it was written by the same author as some of her later books, not sure why - the style is different, at least in my memory. I think McKillip is a fantastic author. Her writing is powerful, lyrical and haunting.

Unknown said...

Yes, I think you're right that Forgotten Beasts has a very different feel. I think that was part of the reason I didn't like it as much -- it didn't seem to have quite the same lyrical quality as everything else I'd read by here.