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Thursday, October 06, 2005

cover of The Sorceress and The Cygnet

Corleu is a young man of the Wayfolk, a wandering people hesitant to pass over thresholds, but his mysterious heritage is visible in the white-blond hair he inherited from a great-grandfather he knows only by a story. He loves to read and tell stories to the other Wayfolk children, but discovers that words have power when he begins to encounter the characters from the tales he tells-- the Gold King, the Blind Lady who wears the silver ring of time, the dancer who brings dreams to humans, the blood fox with the shadow of a man, all of whom are also constellations, bound by the powerful Cygnet. These powerful beings send him on a quest, and he encounters the sorceress Nyx, the daughter of the Lauro Ro, the powerful mistress of Ro Holding. Nyx helps Corleu in his quest, but out of a desire for more knowledge and power. Along the way, Corleu's story intertwines with that of Nyx's cousin Meguet, a woman with her own unknown and powerful heritage.

McKillip has created a complete world here, with different peoples and customs, and their own legends and constellations, which come to life. As in many of McKillip's books, we also find many strong female characters, of several different types-- the powerful sorceress Nyx, who left behind family and love to study the arcane arts anywhere and with anyone who might increase her knowledge; Meguet, who is a warrior and guardian; Lauro Ro, loving mother to Nyx and her sisters, but still managing an entire holding. Even Nyx's sisters are all different. Iris is practical and unmagical, but discovers she has the ancient power to move the entire house of Ro Holding, when necessity demands it. Nyx's sister Calyx loves to read the histories and ancient books in the tower of Ro Holding.

"I watch the stars," Calyx said simply. "Sometimes it seems that all the constellations exist in a strange, ancient tale that we only catch glimpses of in our short lives, while they move slowly as centuries through it."

Where do you hide your heart? Is it hidden away somewhere? Corleu's "heart" is Tiel, the Wayfolk girl he loves; this is why he does the bidding of these powerful beings he fears, because they have captured his heart. When Corleu frees the Warlock from the shape of a blood fox, he makes a blood star to do so-- the Warlock's heart. Nyx is so caught up in knowledge and power that she has forgotten about her heart. And the Cygnet's heart itself, which Corleu is looking for, is hidden in an unlikely and surprising place.

I read this book once many years ago, and did not understand it. I remember feeling like I was reading the sequel to something, as if I had come into the middle of a story and things didn't make sense. As for the conclusion... what happens is only touched on briefly, once. Things aren't explained completely (this is a McKillip book, after all), and what happens is a bit of a surprise-- so if you aren't paying careful attention at that one point, it seems possible to be very confused about what has actually happened. This strange, evocative ending suggests that the tales, and the stars, don't always mean what we think, and that the stories don't always end or begin where we think they do. In the evocative words of the tinker,

... whatever sun touches, whatever dreams, whatever works magic, whatever flies... When the heart casts a shadow instead of dancing light, there story begins.

Title:The Sorceress and the Cygnet
Author:Patricia McKillip
Date published:1991
Number of pages:248
Notes:Second reading.


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