What do you look for in award-winning science fiction and fantasy? In my humble opinion, Patricia A. McKillip represents the epitome of fantasy literature. She has been publishing since the early 1970s and her writing has won numerous awards including the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and two Mythopoeic Awards. In 2008, she was the recipient of the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. But you can learn all this from her Wikipedia page. You don’t need a list of awards to understand the quality of her writing and her stories. You just have to pick up one of her books, open it to any page, and read for yourself.
For me, it all began a long time ago, but I didn’t know it. Part of the magic of McKillip’s novels is in their covers. You aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I hereby give you permission to do exactly that with hers. The cover paintings done by artist Kinuko Y. Craft are pure, glorious fantasy. The artwork breathes life into the fairy tales McKillip spins. When I was younger, I came across one of McKillip’s novels in the library. Drawn to its gorgeous cover with a mysterious, crowned women with snow white skin and an owl on her shoulder, I borrowed it and devoured it. I must admit that I was not as drawn to this particular narrative as I am today. Its subtle adult interactions and strange magic was a bit too confusing for me at that age, but the strong style and incredible prose stuck with me long after I’d returned it. Years later, after I fell head over heels in love with her work, I, unknowingly, picked up the novel again. As I read it, I got a strange sensation of familiarity and realized that I’d read the book long ago. Rediscovering it was magical, like the story had found me again.
Part of the beauty of McKillip’s works is that they come in many forms. Don’t have time for a full novel? Pick up one of her collections of short stories, each tale a worthwhile glimpse into a new and special world. Do you prefer a novel series? I’d recommend The Riddle-Master trilogy and The Cygnet series. Out of her many gorgeous standalone novels, I highly recommend one of my favorite books, Alphabet of Thorn. Whatever you are craving, if it's fantasy, you can’t go wrong with Patricia A. McKillip.
In her short story collection Harrowing the Dragon, you will find a fellowship of five brave women in search of a dragon who end up fighting an altogether different enemy on the road, a lady living in a tower of treasures tending to her plants in pots fashioned from men’s skulls, and a troll living under a bridge who falls in love with a rose. In the short story The Lion and the Lark, McKillip gives a fresh take on a “Beauty and the Beast” type tale. A cursed man is a stone lion by day and a man only in the moonlight. He falls in love and marries Lark, a plain girl whose father accidentally bargained her away to the lion. But she loves her night-dwelling husband till a terrible mistake causes daylight to touch his stone skin and turn him into a dove. A series of curses follow and Lark is caught up in the magic, fighting to rescue her husband against all odds and, in the process, becoming something magical herself.
In Wonders of the Invisible World, a painter in love is driven to ride a kelpie to get away from an unwelcome suitor and winds up negotiating with the king of the lake for her life. In another story, a Knight of the Well named Garner works with the water-mage to unravel the reasons behind mysterious attacks by underwater creatures just before the unveiling of a new fountain. And what is the connection between the attacks and Damaris, the beautiful Minister of Water, with whom Garner is in love?
When I find a treasure like a collection of Patricia McKillip’s stories, I savor them. I take my time reading through them, rationing out each one like a box of rare chocolates. They inspire me. Fantasy is all about potential. The potential for worlds different from our own. Worlds with magic. Worlds with knights going on quests and spells that transmute matter and fairies and trolls, princesses and princes. McKillip doesn’t just write gorgeous and lyrical prose. The best fantasy has an element of questioning within it. The question of potential. What is the potential here? From her smallest descriptions to the overall narrative arcs of each story, McKillip is always asking this question, making you, in turn, question your own perception. Nothing is ever what it seems in her stories and strong female characters abound. What more could you really ask for in good fantasy?
What is your favorite fantasy author or story? Share yours with us in the comments below!