In this trilogy (consisting of The Riddle-Master of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind), Prince Morgon of Hed leaves his small island country in search of the answer to a riddle — the riddle of his destiny. He seeks the High One, mysterious master of all the rulers of the land, to learn why he is marked with three stars on his forehead — to learn who he really is. But Morgon has more power than he could possibly imagine — and more deadly enemies.
McKillip’s prose is beautiful here as always. Her depictions of the many nations through which Morgon passes are especially evocative. Each country is strikingly different in its landscape, and each ruler is unique; McKillip describes them all beautifully. Her creation of this world in general — a world in which each country’s king is tied to his land through a powerful bond, the land-law, granted by the High One and removed only through the king’s death (or extremely strong dark magic) — is believable and praiseworthy. However, her writing suffers here by the fact that this book is a trilogy. The plot could have been told in a third as many words; a good deal of the book consists of Morgon wandering back and forth between countries. Nearly the entire middle volume consists of his future girlfriend Raederle doing the same, with very little advancement of the plot. These descriptions are done in beautiful prose, of course, but one begins to feel them superfluous.
The magic in these books is entirely inside the magicians’ heads, yet it is a real power and tool for good or evil rather than simply a presence in the universe. Supremely un-technological magic such as this, especially when used in battles between wizards, feels like a bit of a cop-out. “If he could blow up that building, why couldn’t he blow up that one?” and similar questions tend to crop up rather frequently. I felt the magic was too psychological to be very believable in context; a slightly more concrete approach would have helped.
Morally, the book is a mixed bag, although perhaps less so than some McKillip novels. Good and evil are definitely different, but are poorly differentiated. For instance, Raederle finds that she has magical powers inherited from evil people way back in her family tree. She is scared of these powers, not wanting to use them for evil — but why these ancestors of hers are evil (besides the fact that they are trying to kill Morgon) is not clearly outlined, and how she can use the magic (she does) without turning evil herself (she apparently doesn’t) is not addressed at all. This sort of confusion between good and evil in practice occurs fairly often. Even Morgon himself becomes a rather ambiguous character in the wake of his discovery of his extreme magical powers. I have nothing against ambiguous main characters in principle, but when the reader can’t tell whether they are good or evil in the author’s opinion, the moral compass of the work is confused.
The existence of absolute truth is, however, strongly upheld, unlike in some McKillip novels — the point of riddles is to find an answer, after all. The characters all seek to understand the truth, and the plot is almost like a (very drawn out) mystery, with plenty of mistaken identities and confusions about the past, but with the truth behind reality discovered in the end. “Things are themselves. We twist the shapes of them. Your own name lies within you still, a riddle. The High One, whoever he is, is still the High One.”