It seems somewhat odd, on reflection, to realize that in a genre that so often uses magic as a metaphor and/or device, so few writers actually evoke the qualities of magic in their writing. That observation is prompted by Patricia A. McKillip’s new book, Solstice Wood. McKillip has always been a writer whose books can themselves be called “magical,” and it’s even more interesting to realize that she seldom uses magic as a thing of incantations and dire workings, or as anything special in itself. It just is, a context rather than an event, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.
It took almost a whole paragraph for me to realize I was going to love this book. I will admit to a certain bias. I have always enjoyed reading McKillip. I happen to consider Riddle-Master, which is firmly on my “re-read frequently” list, one of the two or three best fantasy trilogies ever. She is also a writer I admire for her economy, poetic use of language — those resonances between and around the words — and her humor. This one is McKillip’s first foray into “contemporary fantasy,” and aside from being a new book by Patricia McKillip, it’s engaging on a number of fronts.
After seven years, Sylvia Lynn returns to the family home in upstate New York. The occasion is her grandfather Liam’s funeral. Her intent is to stay for as brief a time as possible. She owns a bookstore a continent away and, as becomes apparent, she ran away from home as soon as she could do it without becoming a fugitive, and simply does not want to hear from her still formidable Gram about coming back home. Her own history has a small blot: her mother never married her father, and in fact, wouldn’t tell anyone who he was. Gram asks her to stay for a meeting of the Fiber Guild, her sewing circle, the day after the funeral. She is reluctant, but there is an added wrinkle: Liam has left the house and land to Sylvia.
The Fiber Guild, as it turns out, has a purpose besides needlework and knitting. With their stitches and crochet hooks, they bind the Otherworld, keeping the fay, the Other, who are dark and dangerous, from overrunning the real world. The Other are cruel and heartless, something to be avoided at all costs, and the wood behind the house and the house itself are full of places where they can cross.
Strangely enough, this is the third novel I have read this year that makes important use of a Place, a house that is a bridge between worlds. In Jane Lindskold’s Child of a Rainless Year, the house itself has a personality and becomes a living thing that participates in the story. McKillip’s house is passive, merely a road, which makes it more akin to the house that isn’t there in Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street (which, incidentally, marks the entry of another major fantasy author into the contemporary subgenre). In Solstice Wood, any specific location — an old stump, a pond, a grove of birch trees — can become a portal, and the house, which is rich in a history that ties events and people together, needs protection as much as anything else, lest things begin literally to pop out of the woodwork.
The narrative is a series of first-person accounts, from Sylvia; Tyler, her teenage cousin; Iris, her Gram, Owen Avery, who has his own secret, and whose family have been protectors of the Lynns for generations; and from Relyt, a changeling left in Tyler’s place. The characterizations are sharp, which is only to be expected from McKillip, and in this case support what might in other hands be a risky undertaking. Without that distinct characterization, a series of first-person narratives all too often leaves the reader wondering just who is talking. McKillip also retains a tight, direct narrative, which she has always done. The people relating the story change, but the story itself, and the poetry of their telling, run throughout without loss of momentum.
McKillip’s humor is still here, wry, sometimes acerbic, but muted, and shows itself mostly in her characterization of Tyler, a teenager at the most awkward age possible. The contrast between Tyler and Relyt, who is clean, neat, cheerful, and well-mannered, is very quietly hysterical, and Tyler’s stubbornness when faced with the fay — and their repeated invitations to eat and drink — is so completely characteristic that we begin to wonder why the fay thought they could ever have their way with him. I’m sure they begin to wonder, as well. McKillip’s observations are gentle, a reminder that within the most serious circumstances there is room, and need, to stand back and reflect.
McKillip has taken her gifts out of created fantasy universes and brought them to bear on our own world. The story is still magical, although perhaps more straightforward, not so elliptical as other books. It’s a clean, tight novel, which we expect from McKillip, with that same sense of things left unsaid, a universe just beyond speech but somehow apprehendible, that I remember from The Riddle-Master and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (which was the first book I remember that demonstrated that a serious fantasy story could be funny). Solstice Wood simply proves that a master is a master, whatever her focus.