Saturday, March 31, 2012

Musings: Alphabet of Thorn

Alphabet of Thorn
I've been lucky recently to read several new-to-me authors that I've really enjoyed.  Kage Baker, Christopher Fowler and now Patricia McKillip.  This makes me happy because, obviously, it is always nice to discover a book that speaks to you.  This happiness is always somewhat tempered with the, "What else is out there that I have not yet discovered, and what if I never discover it?!" panic.  But I try to ignore that panic as much as possible and focus on the good.

I have had Patricia McKillip on my shelf for a long time and never read her.  This book, Alphabet of Thorn, in particular, has been on my shelf for a while and I never bothered to pick it up.  I freely admit that this is because I really dislike the cover.  It is pretty and very ornate- continuing onto the back of the book as well- but it doesn't really draw me in (though it is amazing at depicting the story itself, now that I look at it more closely).  So I ignored the book until very recently when I felt a pull to read some traditional fantasy.  And this book was SO GOOD.  Thank goodness I got over my cover issues because the story is really fantastic.

Nepenthe is an orphan in the kingdom of Raine.  She was raised by librarians to become a very skilled translator and spends her days decoding very old texts in long-forgotten languages and translating them into her own language.  One day, she meets Bourne, a student at the Mage School, and he gives her a book written in an alphabet of thorns.  Nepenthe is immediately drawn to the ancient book and becomes obsessed with translating it, learning all about the emperor Axis and his mysterious sorceress Kane.  But the book doesn't follow any of the rules - it refers to places and conquests and people that existed long after the author and its main characters could possibly have lived.  And there are problems in Raine, too- the new, young queen Tessera is facing dissent from within her own kingdom, but a more terrifying, completely unknown threat is coming, too.  And the only warning is to "Beware the thorns."

I realize the book sounds really not that exciting in my poor attempt at a plot summary above, but IGNORE the plot summary.  Really, this book is all about the book within the book (I love books about books!) and how that story and its characters impact everyone else and all the action.  Axis and Kane's lives are revealed, little by little, throughout the story until readers begin to understand just how intimately their lives influence those of Nepenthe, Tessera and all their friends.  In a way, it reminded me of The Blind Assassin, but that's really only because both books have stories that not only are fascinating to read, but also reveal so much about the other people that populate the narrative.

Another aspect of this book that was the source of much of my love was the faint hint of feminism.  Not so much to blast you over the head with a "Girls rule!  Boys drool!" approach, but enough to make you take notice.  For example, the great sorceress Kane has gone down in 3,000 years of history as a man, not a woman, and it's only as Nepenthe begins translating that she realizes that Kane is a very powerful sorceress, not a sorcerer.  And she's not the only historical figure that people assume is a man based on the accomplishments that have trickled down through history; it is a theme that comes up multiple times.  Similarly, there is the idea of women having the right to choose their destiny- to face their fears and their problems and decide the proper course of action.  The women in this novel are not bystanders or inactive participants; they move their lives along certain paths and deal with the consequences of those decisions.  I loved that.

I also loved that, much like Kage Baker did, McKillip just very easily makes the people in this book a very diverse bunch.  Unlike Baker, McKillip doesn't make race an important distinction in her novel; rather, people come in all different shapes and sizes and colors and with varying degrees of magical ability, and no one seems to care much at all.  It's quite liberating to see such a diverse and open-minded world.

But what kept me reading straight through for hours on end was the book.  And the book within the book.  Can you even imagine an alphabet of thorns?  Also mentioned are the languages of fish and birds and the winds and so many more.  I would love to see how these languages come through onto paper.  I had a lot of fun trying to visualize them, but they seem completely foreign in construction to anything available to my mind.  And the world that McKillip creates- a huge castle on the edge of the world, so high up on a cliff that you can't even hear the water crashing below, a magical wood that reveals different things to different people, a school that can float in the air, and a rich diversity of characters with a long and storied history.  It was wonderful to soak all of that in, especially since the book is written in such lovely language.  In many ways, this novel reads like a fairy tale.  It's so evocative of magic and romance and destiny, all written in such a manner that you can feel the multiple layers of the world you're visiting, but can't quite see them.  It was just what I wanted, and I'm so thrilled to have discovered McKillip.  I can't wait to read more!

26 comments:

  1. This book looks fantastic! Patricia McKillip is an author that has been sitting on my shelf for a really long time, too, and it definitely looks like I should change that when I'm in the mood for fantasy.

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    1. Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who allows her to lapse on the shelf unread. Maybe EVERYONE avoids the books for the covers...

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  2. Arrrrgh. I want SO MUCH to love Patricia McKillip and feel just full of envy whenever someone else does. I have tried a bunch of her books to no avail whatsoever -- I get about a third of the way in and cannot force myself to continue. I shall keep trying though! I WANT to love her. Surely that will someday translate into actually loving her.

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    1. I can understand this because it was difficult for me to get into the pacing and tone of this book at first. I think it is because there were many aspects that I couldn't quite visualize. For example, what does a language written with fish or thorns or vines really look like? I just keep imagining really ornate letters of OUR alphabet rather than a totally different alphabet. So I could see why it would be hard to get over the hump.

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  3. This happiness is always somewhat tempered with the, "What else is out there that I have not yet discovered, and what if I never discover it?!" panic.

    Do I ever know that feeling!

    This sounds delectable. I've been meaning to read more McKillip for ages, too. A few years back, I fell head over heels in love with one of her novellas, but the novel I tried next didn't wow me the same way. I have a feeling it was an aberation, though, so I really want to give her another go. This looks like it could be a great third impression.

    Regarding the cover art: Kinuko Craft's covers never quite pull me in at first glance, either, but once I pause and look at them, I'm always amazed with the number of plot-specific details she manages to weave into each image. I recently read ELFLAND by Freda Warrington, which also sported one of her covers, and there were a lot of gorgeous, subtle pieces of iconography that only became clear as I read the story.

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    1. Yes, now that I've finished the book, the cover is really exquisitely detailed and it's amazing that the artist really seems to have read the book and done a lot to personalize the art to the book. But as to making me want to pick UP the book in the first place... the cover doesn't work for me, unfortunately.

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  4. Funnily enough, the first thing I noticed when I got here was how much I don't like the cover... :)

    The story does sound excellent though! Thanks for the suggestion.

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    1. I'm glad it's not just me, then :-)

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  5. Book twin! Exactly how I feel about her covers; the only McKillip book I've read; LOVED it and am dying to read more. I have The Riddlemaster of Hed on my shelf, though I'm not sure where it came from. But Song for the Basilisk is the famous one, I think. You got me all excited again!

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    1. I think I may have the Riddlemaster of Hed, too. I definitely have Ombria in Shadow, which is done in the same cover theme, but it's not with me at school. So who knows when I'll get to it? I will look out for Song for the Basilisk!

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  6. I just do not know. Just reading about it tells me that this fantasy is so not for me. But that's just the thing, you never truly knows before you actually try a book

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    1. Aw, I actually thought you would really like this one, but you know your tastes better than I do.

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  7. I've had this one on the wish-list for ages now, along with Ombria in Shadow (about which I've heard amazing things, so it might be a good option for your next).

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    1. Ooh, I'm glad to know that there was a REASON I got those books way back when, and that my judgment appears to have been sound :-)

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  8. I read Alphabet of Thorns a few years ago and loved it. I actually picked it off the shelves because I fell in love with the cover! Her collection of short stories, Harrowing the Dragon, is amazing - it may be the strongest collection of fantasy short stories I've ever read.

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    1. Oh, wow- that title alone is enough to tempt me! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

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  9. Patricia McKillip is a very consistent author in terms of her style, but so far Alphabet of Thorn has been my favorite of hers while the others have somewhat paled in comparison. It's not so much that they're bad, rather that Alphabet of Thorn is very good. Her books are all great examples of concise yet rich writing... not many fantasy writers fall into that category!

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    1. Oh, no! I don't want to hear that I started with her best and now everything will be downhill- I hope I feel differently than you. But I completely understand what you mean about fantasy authors never being concise- so true!

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    2. Oh, don't misunderstand me - it's not downhill at all! I can warmly recommend The Book of Atrix Wolfe for instance, it's just that I suspect that McKillip's style has the most power when experienced the first time. Out of four of her books that I've read, I've only had one less-than-satisfactory experience (and most other readers enjoyed that one as well... I suspect my disappointment was related to the circumstances under which I read it) while the remaining three were very good. It's just that of the four, Alphabet of Thorn has stood its ground as my favorite... You have nothing to worry about - you're in McKillip's safe hands.

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    3. Ohh, thank you so much for clarifying! That makes much more sense- good to know.

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  10. Oh, this does sound so interesting! I, too, am trying to visualize a language made of thorns, and am not having a lot of success with it! I love that the book is gently feminist and doesn't go about it in the traditional ways. So much of what you wrote about this one intrigues me. That's it. It's going on the list! Beautiful review today.

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    1. Yes, I loved the feminist bent to it- it was lightly done but really great.

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  11. I am glad you enjoyed this. I have it on my TBR pile! We could have read a book together sooner rather than later... I haven't read her yet at all.

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  12. I don't think I've actually read anything of hers, but I've thought about doing so many times that I'm no longer actually sure about whether it's actually happened! This one sounds like a fantastic place to start though; I'll definitely keep it in mind.

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  13. (catching up...) Ha, I first picked up a McKillip book because of the Kinuko Y. Craft cover. Something about them really appeals to me; the mystery that reveals itself upon close reading, maybe? But I can also see how they might not appeal to everyone.

    It's been *ages* since I read this. You make me want to read it again and soon.

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  14. I loved the whole thing, though the ending was kind of disappointing. I still really enjoyed it very much and couldn't thing of any other way I'd rather have seen it end.

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