Mount Readmore Book Review, 2018 112/200
Harpist in the Wind by Patricia McKillip
Finished on 7/9/2018
In the midst of conflict and unrest the Prince of Hed solves the puzzle of his future when he learns to harp the wind, discovers who the shape changers are, and understands his own relationship to Deth, harpist of the wizard Ohm.
Genres: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, Quest Fantasy, Literati Fantasy, Riddle Master Trilogy, Classic Fantasy
They Were Promised a Man of Peace
This review will be a review of the Riddle Master Trilogy as a whole, and HARPIST IN THE WIND in particular.
I’ve read this book at least a half dozen times over the years. It’s never been my favorite book in the series (I think HEIR OF SEA AND FIRE holds that title), but I’ve always liked reading it. If I were to rank all the books in the series, HEIR is best, HARPIST is second and RIDDLE MASTER OF HED is third.
This is an early McKillip book, written before she has refined and embellished her lyrical storytelling style. As a result her narrative voice is more grounded here, a mixture of traditional prose-y style and a gorgeous descriptive style which can make even earthworms sound cool. I wished more authors had this style of beautiful-yet-functional prose, because it’s a delight to read.
The setting’s gorgeously defined. Even though it’s a semi-Medieval European setting, the setting’s distinctive. The Realm of the High One stretches from the haunted woods of the Three Portions of An, to the massive mountain Isig tunneled through with the tombs of the (not quite) dead children of the godlike Earthmasters- and in between there’s a half dozen different fascinating and unique nations. Each and every petty kingdom in this series is a living, breathing setting all it’s own, with ancient squabbles and undead kings going back thousands of years.
The plot for the series as a whole is very good, probably the best farmboy to superhero story I’ve read. However HARPIST’s plot was a little too abrupt for my taste, containing too few plot twists and turns to satisfy me completely.
This is one of my favorite series of all time. However now that I read it again with a more critical eye, I can spot a number of flaws.
The character arc of Morgon of Hed overall from the start of book 1 to the end of book 3 is very good, however the other main character Raederle of An’s arc begins with a bang in book 2 but only slightly develops further in book 3. More, Raederle behaves unnaturally at times in book 3, which take me out of the story.
The minor characters in this series are generally undefined, with one or two exceptions. For example of an exception, the minor character Lyra of Herun had a strong character arc from book 1 to 3, going from an impetuous untried warrior, to a seasoned warrior who’s seen battle with unnamed monsters. However Lyra’s mother the Queen was a bit bland, solely defined by her love of the harpist Deth, making her undefined.
Characters are not McKillip’s strongest suit in my opinion; she writes characters as archetypes instead of people, usually. This isn’t a bad thing because she writes most of her books in a fairy tale-like style where archetypes recall ancient myths (e.g. see OMBRIA IN SHADOW.) However this book isn’t a fairy tale so the undefined characters sticks out.
I can say that while in concept the plot is really interesting, at times the author fails to make it pay off. The author is trying to execute a traditional Quest Fantasy story, but her somewhat luminous and vague storytelling style clashes with the concrete story she’s trying to tell.
I recommend this series, however I now think it’s not as good as I once thought it was. It is most certainly a Fantasy Classic, but it’s a niche classic. If you’re a serious Fantasy reader, I think you need to read this series at least once.