. . . Rituals with letters, rituals with cauldrons, a bloody gaff, a missing knife, everyone in a time warp, looking back at the past, wishing for the good old days, hinting of portents, speaking in riddles, knowing things but never saying, never explaining . . . (p. 58)
In her latest novel, Kingfisher, Patricia McKillip gives us a motley, misshapen world. Mobile-phone-toting knights set out on old-style quests for sacred artifacts of immense power. Dragons create impenetrable mists over busy highways. Origin stories struggle for primacy with feminist interpretations of religious texts. The King's bastard son rides a motorbike between worlds. No geographical or historical referents map onto our universe, but the characters seem entirely comfortable with twenty-first-century English slang, invoking "Greek myth" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles," the better to make their point. And loosely—very loosely—uniting all of this is one of the central tales of the Matter of Britain: the legend of the Fisher King.
Pierce Oliver has never known his father. For as long as he can remember, he has been working at his sorceress-mother Heloise's restaurant at faraway Desolation Point, the only town on Cape Mistbegotten. All that changes one day when three questing knights pass through Desolation Point on their way to Severluna, the capital city of the realm. As they leave, they tell Pierce, "You might find a place for yourself at King Arden's court" (p. 8). Struck by the meeting, and the dreams of a lost father, Pierce determines to leave home. A furious Heloise reveals to him that she had left his father because of his mad love for the Queen; and that he still lives—along with another son—at the royal court.
On his way to Severluna, Pierce stops at an ancient inn advertising "ALL YOU CAN EAT FRIDAY NITE FISH FRY," and becomes witness to a mysterious ritual involving a knife, a cauldron, an oak staff, and a bleeding gaff. The inn itself seems locked in its own memories of lost glory, and an unspeakable event of the past, manifested only in the innkeepers' deep hatred for a rival chef across town, Todd Stillwater. On his way out of the town, Pierce has time to fall in love with Stillwater's wife, and almost abandon his plans of journeying further, before a mysterious wolf-man breaks the spell and sends him on his way.
Meanwhile, in the capital city, things are in ferment. One of the King's peers, Lord Skelton, has discovered references to "an ancient artifact of the god Severen's—a cup, a pot . . ." (p. 97) in a manuscript that he has been translating. Ever the wily politician, King Arden Wyvernbourne decides that calling for an "old-style" quest to discover the artifact will be the perfect way to keep his restive knights busy, and stave off any possibility of boredom-induced rebellions. Things will not be quite so simple, though. The priestesses of the rival Goddess Calluna, of whom the queen herself is a votary, insist that the artifact never belonged to the god Severen. Indeed, a correct interpretation of the text reveals that "Calluna found the dying god when they were young—back when the world itself was young. She revived him with water from her fountainhead" (p. 115).
But even as the King calls for the great assembly of knights to announce the quest, his youngest—and illegitimate—son, Daimon, has fallen in love, and with no ordinary person. Vivian Ravensley soon reveals to him that both she and his mother are descendants of the women rulers of the Ravenhold, an ancient realm that had been conquered and destroyed by King Arden I, on the loss of its most precious possession—a cauldron that resurrects dead warriors, and which had been stolen by their banished, erstwhile king. It is this cauldron, which has now popped up in Lord Skelton's research, that Daimon must find before the King's knights get to it, so that they can resurrect all of Ravenshold once more.
It is upon this overcrowded stage that Pierce Oliver unwittingly wanders, and is fortuitously recognised by his brother on the field of jousting. Soon, Pierce is reunited with his father (and the queen's lover), Sir Leith. Along with Daimon and the other knights of the King, all fixed upon their own purposes, they will embark upon the quest that will lead them all the way back to the mysterious inn, a journey into half-remembered legends, and the final confrontation between the realms of Wyvernhold and Ravenshold.
One thing that will probably strike the reader immediately on reading this summary is the abundance of well-worn—even outworn—tropes. There is the well-born youth who grows up anonymously in a remote corner of the world. There is the "half-blood" who belongs to both the realms in conflict, and upon whose decisions the fate of the world will be decided. There is the clash between the followers of an aggressive male-God, and a gentler female-Goddess (which, after Guy Gavriel Kay, at any rate, has become a trope!). And of course, there is the quest. To the reader familiar with even a smattering of the genre, each trope is a constant, jarring presence at the back of the mind, preventing complete immersion into the story. Added to this are references to Arthurian legend that are so direct and unsubtle, that there is little satisfaction in recognition: Arden (Arthur), Genevra (Guenevere), Sir Leith (Lancelot), Pierce Oliver (Perceval), Sir Kyle the Seneschal (Sir Kay), Merle (Merlin). The legend of the Fisher King hovers in the background, but remains there, another presence clogging up the mind without ever really coming into its own.
The discordance is sharpened by the manner in which a medieval, sword-and-sorcery world uncomfortably rubs shoulders with some very modern technologies. How the two fit together is never explained. How is it, one wonders, that a world sufficiently advanced for mobile phones has maintained (what appears to be) a feudal polity (the economy is not described)? How is it that cars are the preferred means of transport, but swords continue to be the preferred weapons of battle? How has society advanced enough for women to be (seemingly) working on parity with men in jobs, while a strongly dualist religion based upon a difference between a male god and a female god continues to hold great sway over the realm?
These inconsistencies are too glaring, and McKillip too accomplished and experienced a storyteller, for us to label them as mere oversights. Their role, like that of the tropes, seems to be to actively prevent the suspension of disbelief that most SF asks—and compels—from its readers. That, in fact, appears to be the artistic purpose.
Which, of course, begs the question: why?
Almost a hundred years ago, the German playwright Bertolt Brecht developed something called the "alienation effect" (verfremdungseffekt) in theatre. Rejecting the approach that—since the time of the Greeks—had understood the role of tragic theatre to provide catharsis through a complete immersion of the spectators into the happenings of the play, Brecht actively worked to distance the audience and actors from the play's action, intending this distancing to provoke critical reflection about the play itself. Fragmentation of the narrative structure and interruption of the play by different art forms (such as singing, or film) were two devices that Brecht used to achieve the alienation effect.
McKillip's artful portrayal of a world out of joint with itself prevents immersion, and induces a constant awareness of the underlying structure of the novel, how dependent it is upon tropes, and the larger awareness of how tropes are central to fantasy. Even in its use of tropes, Kingfisher refuses to take itself seriously. For instance, Daimon, with the blood of Ravenshold flowing through him, is dangerous to the security of the realm. And yet, instead of stopping his quest and placing him under lock and key, King Arden Wyvernbourne simply sends one other knight to follow him. It is almost as if the King is aware of his own presence and role within the novel, and has decided that it is too much effort to play out the trope to its end. And the non-serious nature of the quest itself should be obvious to the observant reader from the name of the mysterious inn's location: "Chimera bay." Here again, it seems that McKillip is inviting us to ask ourselves: did all those glorious quests really matter? Who did they matter to? Were they as central to the fate of the world as their protagonists would have us believe?
The artistic purpose of Kingfisher is reflected in its style. Long-time McKillip readers will be accustomed to the dense, fulsome sense of place in her novels, the intricate world-building, and her dazzling, lyrical virtuosity with words (the best example, perhaps, is Ombria in Shadow). By contrast, Kingfisher is sparse with its prose and impressionistic in its world-building. Of course, there are moments when McKillip cannot help herself. Daimon's memories drift "like richly coloured dying leaves through his head" (p. 239), Merle's voice is "so ancient and unwieldy it might have been a slab of granite trying out a human word" (p. 265), Ana Ravensley leaves, "drained out of the air like the candle flame on a river stone, dwindling into the memory of fire" (p. 281), and Todd Stillwater's eyes are "silvery gray as a blade, tarnished with thoughts, memories" (p. 81). These moments are McKillip the consummate wordsmith at her finest, constrained by the form of this novel to ration out her lyricism in scattered phrases through the novel. Yet perhaps their rarity in Kingfisher adds the beauty of an unexpected finding to the expected beauty of the words.
This should not be taken to mean that Kingfisher doesn't deal with important themes in its own right, and in the context of fantasy. The conflict between the followers of Severn and Calluna over the correct interpretation of the origin myth is an elegant portrayal of an under-explored theme in fantasy: how power attempts to create and impose meaning upon the world through language, through the authority of words of the past—but how there is always (to use the language of the anthropologist James Scott) a "hidden transcript" of resistance. While Severn's followers (male votaries of a male god) hold both political power and power over the dominant narrative (that the artifact always belonged to Severn), they can never quite drown out the rival origin myth in which the artifact was used by Calluna to revive a dying Severn, and is hers by right. This conflict assumes an urgent significance when it seems that the mysterious artifact is finally on the verge of being found, and will give great power to whoever possesses it. McKillip draws upon a history of biblical exegesis, as well as the history of the conflicting interpretations of the nature of the Holy Grail, to tell us a story about how pliable a world made up of texts can be, and how struggles over words are never devoid of political significance.
Similarly, there is also much to chew on in the account of how Ravenshold, a realm ruled by women who had driven out their only king, was conquered and destroyed by Wyvernbourne, with the help of the treacherous erstwhile king. For generations, the queens of Ravenshold strategise about how to recover their lost realm, realising ultimately that their best and only chance is through Daimon, who will unearth Ravenshold's lost artifact, and then marry Vivian Ravensley and become her consort. This is, of course, only a thinly veiled commentary upon a millennia-old history in which, deprived of direct access to political power, women have been compelled to attain it through the indirect (and inconvenient) means of marriage and birth. And yet, while these themes are important, their absorption into the overall structure of the novel means that one cannot dwell too long or too deeply upon them. Like the rest of the novel, they too are part of the alienation effect.
Kingfisher is a challenging novel. It resists easy immersion, and compels its reader to think. McKillip herself is a master storyteller experimenting with a new form of storytelling. The result, though it might not always be what she expected or intended, is never dull.
Gautam Bhatia is based in New Delhi, India. When not at his day job as a lawyer and legal academic, he tries to lay hands on the latest works of historical and speculative fiction—with a particular taste for high fantasy and Orwellian dystopias—and read them from cover to cover. He has reviewed before for the Jadaliyya Magazine, and blogs about books at anenduringromantic.