The Alphabet of Thorn
The king of Raine has just died, and the old mage Vevay is attempting to train his daughter Tessera, a shy young woman who shows no talent for ruling whatsoever. Meanwhile Nepenthe, an orphan raised at the Royal Library of Raine, receives a new manuscript for translation; at the same time she meets Bourne, an inattentive student at the Floating School of mages. As Nepenthe begins to fall in love with Bourne, she also becomes more and more obsessed with the book and its mysterious alphabet of thorns. Interwoven is the story of Axis and Kane, the Lion King of Eben who conquered the world thousands of years ago, and his cousin who disguised herself so that she could stay with him as a sorceress and lover.
Like all of McKillip’s books, Alphabet of Thorn is written in beautiful prose with vivd, dream-like imagery. I especially enjoyed the theme of books and ancient languages, and though I would have appreciated a more details-oriented portrayal of Nepenthe’s translation, it probably wouldn’t have fit with McKillip’s style. There were a few problems with the book. It felt slightly unfocused; which characters were most important shifted confusingly, making the conclusion not as satisfying as it might have been. And the romance between Nepenthe and Bourne did not work very well. They did not interact a lot and I didn’t get much feeling for why they were attracted to each other. During a climactic scene, Nepenthe talks of having “learned to love,” but it’s not a very effective line because you never see her learning. On the other hand, the sections about Axis and Kane were powerful and evocative, and the slow revelation of their story was fascinating.
Morally, the book is mostly okay, except that Nepenthe and Bourne are sleeping together. However, it is a fairly small part of the book, and McKillip as always keeps things in good taste. (Actually, the sheer dreamy casualness which with they wander into bed is almost more offensive than the fact that they do. If you’re going to have sex in your stories, fine, but at least acknowledge that it matters.) Axis and Kane are also engaged in an illicit relationship, but it has a lot more depth than Nepenthe and Bourne’s–it’s a violent and ultimately destructive passion, and that makes it far more interesting, and in the end not offensive. And while there are no great moral insights, at the end of the book positive life choices are made.