Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rereads: Riddle-Master of Hed

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.

I don't recall exactly how old I was when I read Patricia A. McKillip's Riddlemaster books. I must have been eleven or twelve or so, which means I read them a few years after they came out, but not more than five. I read them much more than once, enough that when I picked up this book a few days ago, every name was very familiar (it helps that a lot of them are very odd names: Snog Nutt, for instance, is not a name that fades quickly, even if you can't remember he's a pig herder, and I couldn't). The overall plot was little more sketchy for me, with details flashing very clearly into my head but other parts seeming to not exist at all. And yet, as I read it, I remembered more and more images and scenes, although I thought some of them came later in the series instead of in this first book.

That brings me to a major issue I might have had: the book has a whole lot going on. As in, attempting to detail a slightly peculiar world with a deep history and strange customs; having a world-shaking conspiracy hinted at/exposed; suggesting a love story that brings about the second book's action; explaining magic and mystery; and more. It's not a big book (that's a more modern fantasy convention than most of what I'll be rereading) and so a lot of it feels not very fleshed out. I seem to recall that more will be filled in during the later two books, but there's some great gaps that I'm not even sure ever get made clear. Riddle Masters, for instance: why is that a thing? You see, there's a whole college devoted to riddles: what they are, what their lessons are, how they can be solved. It's essentially the University of the world, but how did it end up being all about riddles? I like the idea, of course: it's clever and interesting and weird. But maybe it's too weird, in that I can't figure out how it happens. The world itself also makes almost no sense; it's just a patchwork of kingdoms scattered around a continent without any real logic or even sensible background. Mind you there's background, it just doesn't really make sense.

When I first started my reread I thought that I was maybe bored, maybe didn't care much about the book, maybe had made the wrong choice. But as I went along I got caught up in Prince Morgon's story again--though it's kind of goofy, and he's kind of too perfect, and I don't really believe it at all. Mere quibbles, as it turns out. I really did like it when it was done, and I wanted to read the other two books right away, getting to scenes I half-remembered, characters I could vaguely recall, story elements that intrigued me in recollected form. But I don't have the other two, so I'm stuck with just this one.

I could wish that it was a little more fully developed (okay, a lot more) and it would be today, that's something I'm sure of. One thing that's amazing is how ahead of its time it is sexually: it's from the late 70s, and there's strong female characters of all sorts (almost: there's no women Riddle Masters that I can recall) and the second book is in fact centered on a trio of women instead of Morgon, who pretty much vanishes. So that's neat.

Overall I'm pleased I reread this one, and I could say it holds up pretty well. I can see how it might have fed strongly into what might be my next reread, Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings; it must have served as a general inspiration in fact. Unlike Elric, I don't think I took all that much away from this for my own writing; assuredly I did in some way, but I can't see it directly.

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