Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fantasy: Alphabet of Thorn

Some time ago, I was browsing through Half Priced Books and found a book with a truly lovely cover. I thought I may have read something from the author before (the artwork style seemed familiar, but I wasn't sure if the illustrator was connected to the author), but I figured something that pretty was worth the dollar this clearance book cost even if the book sucked. (Pretty, isn't it?)

The book is Alphabet of Thorn written by Patricia A. McKillip. According to the cover, she's a 'World Fantasy Award-Winning Author,' so I figured this would be a good book to dust off and use for my assignment. Plus, I would achieve the satisfaction of having one less unread book on my bookshelf, not that there are many, but they mock me.

This story takes place in a fantasy world (rather than an earth-bound fantasy) called Raine, and follows several characters. First is a young woman who was abandoned as a baby and left on the edge of the cliff. Nepenthe (don't ask me how to pronounce that) was raised in the palace that was built into the cliff where she was found, and was raised by librarians in a library (fun!) deep beneath the palace. She's a translator who has come across a mysterious text that was written in a language of thorns and has some mysterious hold over her. A young girl, about 14 or 15 I think, has just been made queen over Raine. No one thinks she can handle the job, particularly the old king's advisor, the mage Vevay. Finally, there is a young man named Bourne (and every time he was in a scene, I recalled the yumminess of Matt Damon in the movies of the same name) who is a student at the mage school who is discovering new abilities as well as an affection for Nepenthe. The Kingdom of Raine is suddenly at risk, and these characters have to figure out where the danger is coming from and what they can do to stop it.

Intermixed with all of these characters' points-of-view is a back story of a conqueror and a mage that lived 3000 years before and their story. McKillip did a good job of going from one story to the next, but there were a few times where I had information overload, particularly because she holds out till the end of the book to tie everything together. Fortunately, the ending was satisfying and all the loose ends were tied up the way I like them (I loathe open-ended stories).

When I started reading this book, I wasn't sure I was going to like it - it felt like McKillip was trying to write in an old folktale style and I thought that maybe she was trying a bit too hard. I only felt that way for a chapter or two, though. I don't know if that's because she found her flow or if I just got used to it, but I had no problem with her writing style the rest of the story. She also changed the points-of-view with the start of a new chapter (not every time, but she rarely, if ever, switched them within the chapter); I enjoyed this and it fit with the unhurried flow of the story. I could easily get through a chapter and put the book down to pick up again later. I didn't realize this at the time, but I think I was in the mood for an unstressed read (not that there wasn't mystery or suspense, but something about certain types of fantasies gives the timing a magical quality and the anxiety of the stressful moments gets lost in the flow of the story). McKillip created a believable fantasy world that you could dive into and wade out of without difficulty.

This story definitely fit the fantasy vibe, and if you're looking for a story with the flow and style of an old fairy or folk tale, McKillip may be right up your alley. I would even say that this story lived up to its cover.


  1. I have the hardest time finding adult fantasy books. They either try too hard to be like Tolkien or bore me to tears. This sounds like something I could enjoy. I'll put it on my list of titles to check out.

  2. That is some cover - and so it must some book. I wonder if being raised by librarians in library is anything like being raised by wolves. :)