Thursday, November 19, 2009

Patricia A. McKillip

Mckillip's story "The Snow Queen" is the star turn of this excellent anthology.

Patricia A. McKillip is a writer of the same class as the well-reviewed Alice Hoffman, another writer of complex literary fairy tales, yet McKillip’s novels are ghettoized as fantasy. This is not the kiss of death, as many intelligent readers love fantasy, but it probably curtails her sales. In 2008 McKillip won the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement - an award every bit as important as the National Book Award - and she has won and been nominated for countless other SF/fantasy prizes. Her prose style is rich and lyrical, her sensibility poetic, and her tales as lush and beutifully composed as the magic realists'.

My recent discovery of “The Snow Queen,” her retelling of Andersen’s fairy tale, reminded me of how extraordinary she is: her writing eclipses the other adult fairy tales in Snow White, Blood Red, an anthology edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow, which features superb stories by such famous SF writers as Charles de Lint, Neil Gaiman, and Nancy Kress.

Set in a glittering urban setting of sophisticated partygoers, "The Snow Queen" opens with Kay and Gerda observing a snowfall together.

“They stood together without touching, watching the snow fall. The sudden storm prolonging winter surprised the city; little moved in the streets below them. Ancient filigreed lamps left from another century threw patterned wheels of light into the darkness, illuming the deep white silence crusting the world. Gerda, not hearing the silence, spoke.”

Gerda is the warm one; her cold boyfriend Kay glitters like a knife. He is trying to solve a crossword clue: the first word schoolboys conjugate. “Most likely Latin,” he says. But no emotional words come to mind: his imagination is cold, unlike that of Gerda, who immediately guesses "love."

And of course at Selene’s party Gerda loses Kay to another woman (Kay is the one who loves parties): “Half the city was crushed into it, despite the snow.”

It's the best short story I’ve read this year.

I started reading McKillip a few years ago when I discovered the first volume of The Riddle-Master trilogy in a converted-garage- bookstore where everything was chilly and damp. Miraculously it had survived the mildew. Perhaps it hadn’t been there long. But I fell into it immediately and had to rush out to another used bookstore to find the last two books.

So yesterday I found my copy of McKillip's Solstice Wood, winner of the 2007 Mythopoia Award, a novel I bought intrigued by the fact that the main character is a bookstore owner. That really has nothing to do with the story, though the heroine, Sylvia Lynn, is a literary person. She returns home to Lynn Hall from self-imposed exile after her grandfather dies. There is magic at Lynn Hall; a fairy wood surrounds it; and Sylvia’s secret is that she is half faerie (she has exiled herself because of it). But she joins her grandmother and a group of women at a sewing cirlce whose stitches prevent the troublesome faeries from entering their world. Sylvia becomes more conflicted than ever, but can’t escape back to her west coast when people start to disappear and even her uncle can see with the naked eye people made of sticks and bark.

It starts out a little slowly, but soon the beautiful story clutches you.

I look forward to reading the rest of her books.

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