8 year old me collects little statuettes of dragons. 8 year old me climbs trees and jumps out of the branches. 8 year old me cuddles her cats and tries desperately to make them talk back to her. 8 year old me loves to read and writes short stories about two girls who make friends with a dragon on a mountain.
Much like the animals in this novel, I felt drawn inexorably towards Sybel and her story. Patricia McKillip seems to have a hold over me, because reading her novels, I cannot help but be whisked back to my 8 year old self. Her lyrical prose and simple yet powerful stories strike a chord with me that I can’t quite put into words.
Sybel is a character who was everything I ever fantasised I would be when I was young – beautiful, powerful, surrounded by loved ones and animals and books. She lives on Eld Mountain with animals she has learned the names of and called to her. Amongst them are an old dragon who dreams of his gold, a white boar who speaks in riddles, a great black cat learned in witchcraft, and a man-killing falcon. Then a baby is brought to her, who she reluctantly takes in but quickly comes to love as if he were her own. However, this child is the son of the King, which brings many complications to Sybel’s doorstep.
McKillip’s prose is utterly enchanting, steeped in a fairytale-like storytelling. She imparts wisdom:
“I am not afraid of people. They are fools.”
“Oh, child, but they can be so powerful in their loving and hating.”
A sound came out of her, so sharp and grating she did not recognise her own voice. It came again; she slid to her knees on the skins, the hot tears catching between her fingers. She groped for breath, words wrenching from her, “Help me – I am torn out of myself-”
“Have you never wept so before? You are fortunate. It will pass.”
She describes beauty:
The ghost of Eld Mountain dwindled behind them; the great peak huddled, asleep and dreaming, behind its mists. The land was black beneath them, but for faint specks of light that here and there flamed in a second plane of stars. The winds dropped past Mondor, quieted, until they melted through a silence, a cool, blue-black night that was the motionless night of dreams, dimensionless, star-touched, eternal.
“What do you think love is – a thing to startle from the heart like a bird at every shout or blow? You can fly from me, high as you choose into your darkness, but you will see me always beneath you, no matter how far away, with my face turned to you.”
And she teaches us lessons which 26 year old me is still learning:
He was silent a moment, struggling. He said finally, “But you had a right to be angry.”
“Yes. But not to hurt those I love, or myself.”
This novel resonates with me in such a powerful way. It’s a story about love and bitterness, told with sincerity and depth with a complex protagonist who suffers and must move past it. There’s adventure, political machinations, moments of stark beauty and terrible loss. It’s nostalgic and enduring and intelligent. A true fantasy classic.