Monday, November 18, 2013

For whom the bell tolls

The Bell at Sealey Head
Sealey Head is a small town on the edge of the ocean, a sleepy place where everyone hears the ringing of a bell no one can see. On the outskirts of town is an impressive estate, Aislinn House, where the aged Lady Eglantyne lies dying, and where the doors sometimes open not to its own dusty rooms, but to the wild majesty of a castle full of knights and princesses.

Over the past couple years, Patricia McKillip has become one of my go-to authors to read when I am not sure what I want to read.  Several months ago, I am pretty sure I had a dream about this book.  I don't often remember my dreams, but I am positive my dream had a McKillip book in it because the covers are so distinctive.

The Bell at Sealey Head is McKillip writing in the way that made me fall in love with her.  There is a subtle but important feminist streak.  There is magic.  There is gentle comedy and there are interfering relatives.  And linking everything is McKillip's wonderful turn of phrase:
The odd thing about people who had many books was how they always wanted more... Here he was; there they were. Why were he and they not together somewhere private, they falling open under his fingers, he exploring their mysteries, they luring him, enthralling him, captivating him with every turn of phrase, every revealing page?
 I wish there were more fantasy writers like McKillip out there today.  I like that she can write a complete story in under 300 pages.  She doesn't need 5 books of 700 pages each to share her vision with the world.  She really is one of those authors who makes every word count.

While I love McKillip's stories and her writing, I have come to realize that her characters are often forgettable.  This usually bothers me because I like likeable characters.  Granted, most of McKillip's characters are quite likeable.  They just aren't very memorable.  None of them has a very strong identity.  There are also a lot of characters, though most of them kind of blend together.  The book reminded me of the show Road to Avonlea, with its small town of well-meaning busybodies and idyllic setting.

I admit that the actual plot of The Bell at Sealey Head (I mean the MAIN plot that includes Aislinn House and the doors and the knights) was not best, in my opinion.  I didn't really understand what motivated the villain (similar to my experience reading Ombria in Shadow), and the explanation of what happened to everyone was very confusing to me.

But maybe that's because McKillip doesn't feel the need to explain every tiny thing to her readers, and perhaps that is why her books are so gratifyingly slim for the fantasy genre.  I surprisingly didn't mind the vague plot details.  I feel like McKillip writes books that are made for dreams.  They are vague on what in real life would be considered key elements, but they leave you feeling so warm and fuzzy inside and not quite sure whether something really happened.  I love that!

I didn't talk much here about the characters or the plot.  Rest assured, there are characters and there is a plot.  And the book kept my attention so well that I finished it in a day.  But what keeps me coming back to McKillip is her lovely writing style and her ability to create worlds and stories that seem so far away from the norms of the fantasy genre.  I love her for it, and The Bell at Sealey Head is a very good example of her skill.


  1. At first I loved the post-Harry Potter wordcount explosion, but now I feel like everybody thinks they need a giant book. Some stories really need to be pared down - conciseness is an art too!

  2. I have several of McKillip's books, this one included, that I need to catch up on. I love how you describe her work as I feel very similar about it. I love that her books don't have to be HUGE to be wonderful and her lyrical style always wraps me up and takes me away. I really have no excuse, besides too many books to read, for not getting caught up with her.

  3. What you said. I have been trying to decide between re-reading The Bards of Bone Plain or In the Forests of Serre. Bards has a bit of a different setting, a setting that feels very distinctly McKillip but it has cars in it. And a princess who wants to be an archaeologist. So... maybe I already know which one I'm re-reading next? Also, that quote you pulled is one of my favourite quotes from any author anywhere.

  4. "....there are interfering relatives." *snort* I know exactly what you mean and I love it. =)

  5. I love McKillip for these reasons, too -- she writes like a dream, quite literally. I love to reread her during the holidays when everything is quiet and still.


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