Since the 1970s Patricia A. McKillip has written a series of short, intimate fantasy novels that nevertheless offer readers tantalizing glimpses into vast and intricate Otherworlds. Her houses are never just houses, the words spoken by her characters can literally singe the air, and her simple scholars are always anything but. Shakespeare's Queen Mab would be right at home in a McKillip novel not only because McKillip specializes in creating memorable faerie characters, but because, like a McKillip novel, the trappings of Mab's tiny, seemingly innocuous world—the walnut-shell chariot et al—conceal a powerful magic.
McKillip's knack for finding magic in intimate settings is prominently on display in her latest novel, The Bell at Sealey Head, a story in which the simple act of opening the door to the linen closet is fraught with enchanting potential.
Every dusk the residents of the small seaside village of Sealey Head hear the sad tones of an invisible bell. Most of the townsfolk have learned to ignore the oddity but several of the younger residents suspect the bell is ringing in another dimension—either from the depths of the bay where a tragic shipwreck is said to have occurred, or else in some inaccessible faerie realm. Judd Cauley, the son of Sealey Head's aging innkeeper, attempts to touch this secondary world by reading books on magic and folklore. His sweetheart, Gwyneth Blair, an aspiring author, is forever creating fictional accounts to explain why the bell rings. Meanwhile a young man named Ridley Dow arrives in town and begins to poke about the mysterious Aislinn House, an old mansion whose doors have a disconcerting habit of opening upon an enchanted, if not quite friendly, past version of itself—an alternative universe inhabited by knights and princesses. As we come to know the residents of both Sealey Head and this secondary Aislinn House, we realize that they are linked—and on a collision course.
The Bell at Sealey Head is both darker and funnier than McKillip has been in a while. Recent books like In the Forests of Serre (2003) or The Alphabet of Thorn (2004), with their focus on thwarted romantic ambitions, seem the smallest bit maudlin after Sealey Head, a story far more concerned with solving mysteries and drawing its myriad characters together in a last stand against evil than engaging in romantic angst. There are many secrets to untangle here, and many warm, endearing characters who need to end up properly matched over the scant span of three hundred pages and as per usual, McKillip juggles what could easily have become a convoluted plot with jaw-dropping ease. Pleasing shades of Jane Austen abound as Gwyneth, Judd, Ridley, and a frigid heiress named Miranda Beryl maneuver their way around comically thwarted suitors in pursuit of one another. A pair of twins, Raven and Daria Sproule, are as obnoxious and comical as any of Austen's fussy antagonists as they try to insert themselves between the lovers. An amusing subplot involving the dreadful cooking of one Mrs. Quinn slowly becomes vital to the main story. And there is a truly chilling vision of Faerie in all its beauty and inhumanity as Princess Ysabo of the parallel Aislinn House tries to break free of its numbing rituals.
While other reviewers, such as Deborah J. Brannon at The Green Man Review, have already noted the Gwyneth/writer plot, arguing that McKillip has put herself in her own story as a way of commenting on storytelling itself, the Ysabo chapters seemed to me by far the more interesting part of the novel. Like Susanna Clark in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2005), McKillip excels at creating Otherworlds that are truly Other. In Sealey Head, even fey characters like Ysabo seem disoriented by the magic they themselves are a part of.
Unlike her mortal counterparts, beginning to shape their Victorian-era world around their own desires (Judd courts Gwyneth despite being on unequal social footing, Gwyneth pursues writing despite its being "unladylike"), Ysabo is stuck in the medieval past. Each day she must perform a series of strange tasks: feeding a murder of crows, turning over a single page in a perpetually blank book. Her mother Aveline and grandmother Maeve have forbidden her to ask why. All her movements revolve around the ringing of the unseen bell and as the story progresses the daily ritual assumes a hellish monotony:
Cross the parapet walk to the west tower, where, this morning, you fed the crows. Put on the apron someone left there. Take the bucket of water and the brush. Scrub the leavings of the crows off the stones, their discarded scraps, stray feathers, acrid droppings. Ignore the crows when they line the wall and watch you. They approve. They like a clean house. And with them there you won't be tempted to lean over the battlements and watch the wood for a flash of armor, a flow of color through the trees, whose lengthening shadows portend the waning of the day, the return of the knights, the bell.
Go to your chambers, take off your soiled clothes, bathe, and dress for supper.
Wait for it, the ringing of the bell. (pp. 79-80)
It is no coincidence that, while Gwyneth walks breezily in Sealey Head inventing harmless fictions about the bell, Ysabo, the faerie-tale princess in whose realm the bell actually resides, is condemned to a hell of domesticity. The centerpiece of the novel is an acute examination of women's roles, past and present, and of the role imagination plays in hampering them or setting them free. Gwyneth is a writer in control of her own story. Ysabo and the heiress Miranda Beryl have no creative outlets and find themselves struggling to conform to the Victorian ideal of the "Angel in the House." A sense of women battling against sinister male dominance pervades the entire novel, and is brought to a head when we learn who is responsible for the spells affecting both worlds. The irony that a faerie princess enjoys less freedom than a group of easily scandalized Victorians only adds to the exquisite frustration as Ysabo battles cold-eyed knights and domineering wizards to become the hard won heroine of the tale.
Papers, of course, could be written about McKillip's take on the fantastic and The Bell at Sealey Head is every bit as multilayered a work as predecessors like The Book of Atrix Wolf (1995) and Winter Rose (1996). Yet the primary goal of the novel is to whisk us off to excitement and danger and the effortless way the heavier themes blend into the plot discourages readers from stopping to niggle. Once charmed by the winsome characters (Ysabo, Ridley, and Judd are particularly fine) and the author's typically gorgeous prose, you'll find that Sealey Head casts a spell from which you won't soon want to escape.
Hannah Strom-Martin's short story "Father Pena's Last Dance" appeared in the 2009 Halloween issue of Realms of Fantasy.