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Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip
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Alphabet of Thorn (original 2004; edition 2004)

by Patricia A. McKillip

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
989358,671 (4.18)1 / 86
Member:ktoonen
Title:Alphabet of Thorn
Authors:Patricia A. McKillip
Info:Ace Hardcover (2004), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 320 pages
Collections:Your library, Annotated
Rating:***
Tags:Fairy Tale, Bibliophile, Literary, Magic, Time Travel, Coming of Age, Adventure

Work details

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip (Author) (2004)

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Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
If you're a fan of epic fantasy, and things that are written like fairy tales, as I am, then you'll probably love this just as I did. McKillip's writing is beautiful, and some of the best I've read in the epic fantasy sphere. She had me jotting down quotes about every other page. Okay, fine, that's a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one. I'd like to share a couple of them here, just to show you how wonderful she is.
Easier to understand the wind . . . Easier to walk on the surface of the frothing sea, than to remember the hunger to do it. Easier to remember knowledge than ignorance, experience than innocence. Easier to know what you are than remember what you were. The Shadow of the Emperor
The Hooded One
Who unmasked night
Who laid the stars like paving stones
Who rode the Thunderbolt
Down the star-cobbled path into day
Was Kane,
The Emperor's twin
Silent, as lightning is silent,
Before the thunder speaks

More fantastic in-world poetry and imminently quotable lines are to be found throughout. This book has some fantasy tropes in it, such as a floating mage school, a mystical wood, etc. McKillip writes with such skill that you totally believe the world she's created, tropes and all, and isn't that what all us fantasy lovers really want? There's a reason floating castles and suchlike have persisted through time--because they're freaking cool. But they are also overdone, so it can be hard to make them believable and to put your own twist on it. McKillip not only makes you believe, but she enchants you with words as powerful as any magic.

The story is an interesting one, in that it's less “Lord of the Rings” than “Downton Abbey.” There's no great journey from point A to B for a band of heroes. It's mostly a story about the characters, and the things they feel, and the things that happen around them and to them, and the things that have happened in the history of their world, which gets a bit complicated as you might expect when time travel is involved.

Before I talk more about the story as a whole, let me introduce you to our cast of characters.

Tessera is the young, unprepared new ruler of Raine. She has to take up the role when her father passes unexpectedly, and she's starts buckling under the pressure almost immediately.

Nepenthe was found abandoned as a babe on the edge of a cliff and taken in by the royal library as a transcriber. She loves translating strange languages, and when the mage school gives her a book written in a language of thorns that nobody has ever seen before to take back to the library she keeps it to herself so that she can have the first crack at it. What she uncovers is the story of two lovers, Axis and Kane, from the distant past who have become major mythical figures by her own time. Their tale is captivating enough to be a book all on its' own, and is revealed to be a lot more pertinent to current events than you might think.

Bourne is a young noble sent to the mage school by his uncle to learn its' secrets so that he can bring them back home and help his uncle conquer new lands in this vulnerable time of changing rulers. He doesn't much care for his studies, or for his uncle's schemes, but he falls hard for Nepenthe (and she for him) and is all around a pretty cool guy.

Vevay is a very old mage, and a personal adviser of sorts to the rulers of Raine. She's also quite the badass. Her main role in the story is to teach Tessera all she needs to know to rule, and to lay some magical smack down when needed. She also has a much younger, though still “old” lover named Gavin, who is a grizzled general.

The story is thrust into motion by Tessera having to take up the responsibility for the twelve crowns of her kingdom when her father suddenly passes, and by the librarian Nepenthe receiving a strange book written in thorns that she begins translating. Other than that the plot is rather meandering, but in a really good way. There is a threat to the kingdom that emerges first as the awakening of the corpse of the first king of Raine, who is entombed in the side of a cliff on the edge of the sea (so cool) and who actually turns out to have been a queen (again, so cool), warning Tessera about the imminent threat of “thorns”, but it's rather subdued by epic fantasy standards, very imaginative when it finally reveals itself, and it is resolved by a lie, an illusion, and a mother's love for her child. Seriously. The great threat is thwarted without a single drop of blood being spilled, and yet it was an incredibly satisfying ending. If that doesn't convince you of McKillip's immense talent, then I don't know what the heck will.

Meanwhile, Bourne is occupied by Nepenthe, and by his magic. Nepenthe is hell bent on translating the book of thorns. We get to see the story of Axis and Kane unfold as she does so. Tessera is flustered by her new responsibilities, and wondering why she can hear trees talk, and what's up with this warning about thorns. Vevay is busy trying to figure out what the threat is as well, and dealing with Bourne's stupid uncle when he decides to attack, and the book never actually explodes into physical conflict. Smaller, more personal stakes are something that I've been looking for in an epic fantasy for a little while now, and I think I've found my go-to author.

I'd also like to point out that if strong female characters are a thing you've been looking for in fantasy, you've come to the right place. Not only does McKillip write her women well, but she writes her men well too. While the shakers and movers of the story are mostly women, I never felt like it was just for the sake of being contrary to a male-biased norm, or to shove a feminist viewpoint down my throat. It's not like the women are super smart and men are incompetent. It's just that the most important people happened to be women, which is the best way to write strong female characters if you truly believe both genders are equal. Nepenthe manages to have a romantic relationship with Bourne without it diminishing either of them as individuals, or taking away from the main through-line of the story. Vevay may be an all-powerful mage, but she still looks to Gavin for support and advice. Everyone is written as a person first, a gender second, and that's something very special indeed. I wish more of McKillip's contemporaries (male and female) had the same gender-blindness.

This is the first of McKillip's novels that I've read, and I can't wait to gobble up everything she's ever written over the next few years (if it even takes me that long). As a rare standalone novel in a world of trilogies and long series this was a fantastic starting point for getting acquainted with her style. I can't recommend it enough. ( )
1 vote ForeverMasterless | Apr 23, 2017 |
the translator Nepenthe is learning new languages. the language of fish, all gills and bubbles and tiny scales, a silver presence glimpsed in the water, and then gone. compare the language of thorns, all sharp and angular, ensnaring. new words that never existed before dangle at the end of her pen as she works, recreating in more familiar words a story that threatens the Kingdom of Raine. the Queen of Raine is vague and almost formless; she drifts through her kingdom like a wraith, making no imprint on it. the Library has not seen the book to know the threat. the school of magic floats in the wood, and the birds sing only for the Queen. the Dreamer comes to warn the enchanted kingdom. time shifts, space folds, the briars close tighter on the kingdom in translation. new words are born, shaped by the translator, released onto the page as an enchantment. new maps are made, as the shape of the world changes as a consequence. the cover artist wraps the book, dreaming of Remedios Varo. the writer is the true magician; as always, everything she writes is an enchantment. ( )
1 vote macha | Mar 29, 2017 |
Now that I’m used to her style, I can really appreciate the finesse with which she uses words. Time and love twist and turn in this tale. ( )
  BookstoogeLT | Dec 10, 2016 |
I picked up this book because it was recommended to me based on other books I have read and liked. I enjoyed the concept - a book is found that only one scribe is capable of reading. She hides that she knows how to read it because of how the book makes her feel, how the letters speak to her. The story as a whole, and the individual characters, could have absolutely been more developed and deeper. I didn't really understand the love relationship that happened, it just seemed more forced than anything. ( )
  alb2219 | Sep 5, 2014 |
A creative story and well-told, but not exceedingly memorable. I would read more by Patricia A. McKillip. ( )
  sbsolter | Feb 6, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
McKillip, Patricia A.Authorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Craft, Kinuko Y.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Murello, JudithCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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On Dreamer's Plain, the gathering of delegations from the Twelve Crowns of Raine for the coronation of the Queen of Raine looked like an invading army.
Quotations
Epics are never written about libraries. They exist on whim; It depends if the conquering army likes to read.
"We don't choose our passions."
"History moves in great, messy shifts of power, in choices made as though by too many people building a house, where one misplaced stone in the foundation slips under the weight of another stone near the roof. . . ."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0441012434, Paperback)

Patricia A. McKillip is one of America's greatest fantasy authors. Her best known novels include Riddle-Master; World Fantasy Award winner The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; World Fantasy Award and Mythopoeic Award winner Ombria in Shadow; and In the Forests of Serre. Like its predecessors, Alphabet of Thorn demonstrates McKillip's mastery of prose and her knowledge of the human heart.

As an infant, Nepenthe was abandoned by her mother on the edge of a cliff so high no one can hear the sea below. Nepenthe was raised by the librarians of the Royal Library of Raine, and knows little of the outside world beyond what she reads. She has a gift for translation, and she alone has a chance of translating a newly arrived book, a mysterious tome written in an alien alphabet that resembles thorns. But Nepenthe has fallen in love with the high-born student-mage who brings her the book. And the thorns are exerting a strange power over her--a magic that may destroy not only Nepenthe, but the kingdom of Raine and the entire world. --Cynthia Ward

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:04 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Nepenthe, an orphan who has been raised by the librarians of the Royal Library of Raine, becomes obsessed with deciphering a supposedly untranslatable book brought to the palace by a young mage, not realizing that the words and her fate are entwined with that of the newly crowned, fourteen-year-old queen.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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