Patricia McKillip is one of my favorite authors for her atmospheric novels that combine down to earth characters with love and forgiveness, wispy magic, inexplicable happenings, good and evil and pure imagination. Kingfisher uses the Grail myth as a theme on top of a world that combines magic in the foggy coast, a basilisk cum temptress, humor, a traffic-snarled bridge, a castle’s kitchen plus characters seeking for themselves and their hearts.
If this sounds confusing, well, the novel is a bit. I find McKillip’s plots seem to have small (or large) holes that I simply overlook, jump in the torrent and move along with the characters. We get bewildered together. (I re-read Kingfisher as I do most of her novels and the plot was clearer and more seamless the second time.)
Kingfisher is no exception. Don’t expect detailed explanations of how the world is set up, or seamless transitions. Things happen. Characters do things, sometimes for reasons even they don’t understand. It’s real life.
Our main character Pierce is a straight arrow who somehow finds himself taking a knife from an inn (actually he left his credit card so it wasn’t technically stealing – or so he told himself). Pierce and his brother Val are the down-to-earth characters that McKillip uses to move the story along, while the main plot revolves bastard prince Daimon and the secondary plot has Carrie contending with Stillwater for the soul of the town and family.
Kingfisher is about people, with magic and its world providing part of the challenge and decorating the main thrust, which is the tangle between family, loyalty, love, forgiveness and ambition.
Daimon’s story is love fueled by enchantment augmented with glamour and sex, meant to be strong enough to set him against his father, the king whom he loves. His family – his real family, not his biological mother’s family – sends Dame Scotia to watch over him and she entangles herself in his dreams enough to break them both free of the enchantment.
Magic and World Building
McKillip’s magic is understated. Pierce and Val are children of a powerful sorceress and she works magic to free them from the basilisk who holds their father. Chef Stillwater uses magic and malice to imprison an entire town feeding them food that looks beautiful but is empty of flavor and nutrition. The Ravenhold women use glamour to enchant first the king, then his son.
Everyone accepts magic as real and powerful, but we never see how it works or whether only some have the ability. It’s a fact of life, not the be-all and end-all of the novel.
Kingfisher’s world is our world complete with cell phones and bad traffic plus magic and a plethora of gods and goddesses. McKillip doesn’t spend time telling us much about this world beyond letting us feel its familiarity.
We are in the Kingdom of Wyvernhold, which has knights and tournaments on special occasions; think of England but with the full-color ceremonial trappings that have meaning, and are not just decorations. The king mentions that one reason he wants to promote the Quest is that now with times so good, some of his subjects are restless and looking for trouble, wanting their own tiny domains’ independence.
Most of McKillip’s novels have gorgeous covers and Kingfisher’s is a bit blah; maybe she felt the modern setting needed a more modern cover picture. That’s about my only quibble. Some Amazon reviewers complained about the lack of a clear magic system or more explicit world building but I don’t agree.
Kingfisher is about people caught up in snarls due to love and loyalty with magic adding twists. It is a fantasy because it is set in another world and there is some magic in the background. I always feel tossed in the middle of McKillip’s fantasy novels, like I should know these people, these situations. Kingfisher is no exception. It is overall excellent.