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Fantasy Author Patricia McKillip: A Reading Guide

By Adrienne Rivera. Sep 2, 2023. 4:25 PM.

Topics: Awarded Books, American Literature

Novelist Patricia A. McKillip was born in 1948 in Salem, Oregon. She attended the College of Notre Dame and San Jose State University. She began her career publishing books for young children. Her first novel, her third published work, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, won the World Fantasy Award in 1976, cementing her as one of the best fantasy authors of her time. Known for her stunning and lyrical prose, McKillip's stories often feature feminist takes on folk and fairy tales. Often awarded throughout her career, McKillip was given the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2008. She passed away at her home in 2022 at the age of seventy-four. Join us today as we take a closer look at some of her most beautiful and enduring stories:


Alphabet_of_Thorn_Cover"Every moment is like a wheel with a hundred spokes in it. We ride always at the hub of the wheel and go forward as it turns. We ignore the array of other moments constantly turning around us. We are surrounded by doorways; we never open them." – Alphabet of Thorn.

McKillip's lyrical 2004 novel Alphabet of Thorn focuses on Nepenthe, an orphan girl living in a library in a great kingdom who is being raised as a translator. When she comes across a mysterious book in thorny writing nobody can decipher but her, she discovers a story about two mysterious historical figures: the King of Night and his loyal sorcerer Kane. As more of the story of these conquerors is revealed, so is Nepenthe's relationship with them, and this knowledge puts the kingdom under threat.

"What do you think love is- a thing to startle from the heart like a bird at every shout or blow? You can fly from me, high as you choose, into your darkness, but you will see me always beneath you, no matter how far away, with my face turned to you. My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it or let it whither and die. I do not understand you. I am angry with you. I am hurt and helpless, but nothing will fill the ache of the hollowness in me where your name would echo if I lost you." – The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

The winner of the World Fantasy Award for 1975, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld tells the story of Sybel, a sixteen-year-old girl living alone on a mountain with only mythological creatures for her company when a mysterious man brings a child to her to raise. When the man returns years later to take the child, the lost and hidden prince of the kingdom, Sybel is forced to leave her mountain and attempts to start a war as revenge for the king who wronged her and took the child she loves.

It's so hard to think in winter. The world seems confined in the space of your heart; you can't see beyond yourself.” – Winter Rose.

McKillip's 1996 novel Winter Rose is based on the Scottish Tam Lin novel. It tells the story of Rois, who, despite all warnings, becomes enamored with the mysterious Corbet Lynn, as does her sister. When her sister begins to waste away, as their mother did, Rois realizes Corbet isn't who he claims to be. It was nominated for a Locus Award, a Nebula Award, and the Mythopoeic Award.

The_Changeling_Sea"Love and anger are like land and sea: They meet at many different places." – The Changeling Sea.

One of McKillip's novels intended for young readers is The Changeling Sea, published in 1988. This Mythopoeic nominated novel fathers Peri, whose father has died at sea, whose mother is consumed with depression, and whose only friend, an old woman who taught her magic, has disappeared. To get revenge for the damage the sea has wrought on her life, she casts a curse along with the unwitting help of the kingdom's prince. When the curse works, she is left to deal with the consequences to the kingdom and the sea and reconcile herself with the reality of her own power.

"Sorrow was like sleeping on stone, he decided. You had to settle all its bumps and sharp edges, come to terms against them, fit them around until they became bearable, and then carry your bed wherever you went." – Od Magic.

Od Magic
was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2005. One of McKillip's rare books featuring a male protagonist, the novel focuses on Brenden, a young man with a strange and innate understanding of plants and agriculture, who is recruited by the legendary giant wizard Od to work as her gardener at the magic school in Keilor. As he becomes embroiled in the politics of the school, it is revealed that he, too, possesses a strange magic.

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Adrienne Rivera
Adrienne Rivera received her MFA in fiction from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She currently lives in southern Indiana.


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