February 2004
© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Alphabet Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip
Ace / Penguin Putnam HCVR: ISBN 0441011306 PubDate: 02/01/04
Review by EJ McClure

320 pgs. List price $22.95
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Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Patricia McKillip brings us a tale of two pairs of lovers separated by thousands of years, yet bound together by blood, passion and destiny. And what a treat it is: Alphabet of Thorn is a masterpiece of complex plotting, deft characterization and spare, lucid prose that sings like poetry.

It is a perilous time for the kingdom of Raine. The Twelve Crowns have just fallen into the hands of a rabbity girl who seems completely unsuited to the task of ruling her fractious nobility. Though obedient and polite, Queen Tessera is manifestly disinterested in the business of being Queen, much to the alarm and despair of her counselors.

Sixteen-year-old Nepenthe cares nothing for queens or crowns. A foundling taken in by the palace librarians, Nepenthe has grown to womanhood among the dusty tomes and manuscripts. It is a comfortable, secure life; she has a remarkable gift for translating unknown tongues. She thinks herself content until the day she meets Bourne, a fledgling mage whose powerful family harbors certain ambitions regarding the Crowns of Raine. Bourne gives her a book written in an unknown alphabet whose spiky letters twine together like brambles. Nepenthe’s heart is ensnared, both by the book and by the bold young mage.

As she doggedly unravels the mystery of the thorns, Nepenthe discovers that the book is the tale of another pair of lovers, Axis and Kane: Axis, the lion king of Eben, and Kane, the masked sorceress whose terrifying power ensured Axis’ victories. Enchanted by their story, Nepenthe is drawn step by step into a consuming tangle of riddles. The truth she discovers at the heart of the maze will shake the foundations of the kingdom.

McKillip deftly shuttles the reader back and forth in time, slowly revealing the terrible consequences of Kane’s love for Axis even as Nepenthe discovers the depth of her own passion for Bourne. Events set in motion thousands of years ago move inexorably toward conclusion, forcing Nepenthe to make choices that could save or destroy them all. In that crisis, Queen Tessera faces the test that will bring her into her own, or end her reign along with her kingdom.

McKillip’s eye for the telling detail has become keener over time. In some of her earlier novels—Fool's Run, for instance—the Faberge beauty of the imagery tended to obscure the thread of the action. But in Alphabet of Thorn, as in The Changeling Sea, McKillip has struck a perfect balance between scene-setting and action. This is character-driven plotting polished to perfection. The magic in the book springs more from the heart than the mind, which is admirably in tune with the fairy tale atmosphere of the Nepenthe’s changeling world.

In this era of sprawling mega-volume epics, McKillip’s ability to deliver a satisfying tale of wonder and enchantment in a single volume is truly remarkable. From beginning to end, Alphabet of Thorn is a Godiva truffle of a book.

© 2004 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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