Desert Isle Keeper
The Book of Atrix Wolfe
Patricia McKillip’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe is not a romance novel, though it contains a sweet, subtly inconclusive love story. But I find something irresistibly romantic about the concept of an immortal, summertime faery-wood that exists alongside our own world, populated by powerful, beautiful beings. The Book of Atrix Wolfe is a fairy tale, one for adults, in which the dangers are dark indeed, and the rewards are delicious.
Atrix Wolfe is the legendary wizard of Chaumenard, a wise man, shape-changer and teacher. When the keep of Pelucir is besieged by the armies of Kardeth, Wolfe casts a spell to end the hated war. In his anger he creates something more terrible than war, a Hunter whose essence seems to be siege distilled: fear, cold, famine, death. The Hunter not only ends the war and destroys the army of Kardeth, it also murders the king of Pelucir before disappearing. Tormented by guilt, Wolfe too vanishes.
Twenty years later, no one really understands what happened on Hunter’s Field, least of all Atrix Wolfe. His exile is disturbed by visions of an immortal Queen in a summer wood, who cries the word “sorrow” in his dreams. Meanwhile, Talis, the young prince of Pelucir, discovers a spell book whose spells go dangerously awry. And, down in the kitchen of Pelucir, a scullery maid with neither face nor voice works silently. Her name is Saro. Note that it rhymes with sorrow.
The plot of this book grows from one ill deed into a dangerous labyrinth of unintended results. The different pieces of the puzzle strive, alone, each with its own agenda: Saro seeks to communicate with those around her; Talis seeks the love of the Queen of the wood; the Queen of the wood seeks to regain what was stolen from her; Wolfe seeks redemption for his crime. No one knows what the Hunter, mighty and awful, seeks. All these disparate pieces lock together at the end, forming a tight, satisfyingly complete whole. The characters seem real and their motivations compelling, especially the unexpected and fascinating Saro.
The reason I return to this book again and again is McKillip’s writing style, which is completely unique in my experience. Poetic and sometimes puzzling, McKillip evokes atmosphere, color, emotion and action in a dreamlike, surprising way. In this paragraph Saro, who cannot speak, tries to understand the language of the kitchen:
“. . . the spattering of onions over the fire, the rhythm of mincers’ knives on hardwood . . . milk scalding, meat spattering down into the fires, wood snapping and groaning, the changing voices of fire as it leaped into new wood, hungry as a spit-boy, or, sated, caressed darkening coals and murmured. Everything had a voice; even the dumb, plucked, headless fowl turning on the spits spoke to the fire . . . Having no voice, she did not distinguish the sound of the chopping blade from the sound of human voices, unless the particular sound of her name caught her ear. She gave no thought to what might have come out of her own mouth if she suddenly spoke: it might as easily be the thunk of kneaded dough against wood, or the clank of a scorched pot kicked across stones, as any human word.”
McKillip uses this kind of prose both for descriptions and for important events, and it’s not the sort of thing that can be zipped through. Some people have complained that they don’t like McKillip because they can’t understand what she’s talking about. The complaint is not unjust, but I love that aspect of her writing. It shakes you out of your complacency, forces you to slow down and stop skimming, to go back over the puzzling passages, turning them over in your mind until suddenly they shine, not merely clear but beautiful.
The Book of Atrix Wolfe ought not be skimmed. It’s to be savored slowly, and then cozily reread on winter nights, when things you didn’t notice the first several times emerge. It’s only with slow appreciation that it grows from a pretty decent read into what I am now convinced is one of the loveliest fantasies ever written.