The Riddle-Master Trilogy
by Patricia A. McKillip

Fantastic fantasy novel. It does involve numerous situations in which the male characters (who are, admittedly, better able to defend themselves from this world) take patronizing and protective stances against the independance of the female characters. I mention this because it stands out in contrast to the tone of the books over all, which is one of great gender equality. In most fantasy novels I've read the patronizing attitudes of the male character would not rate a mention--they are par for the course (or, really, slightly more understandable than they often are).

In this novel, they represent a contrast to the varied and believable depictions of strong women, and these depictions run a laudable range. Lyra, for example, is an extremely skillful guard, the heir to a kingdom, and (most interestingly) someone with no "patience for riddle"--if she can't solve a problem with violence, she's at a loss. Tristan is a girl raised to cook and clean in a farm house, but who is still willing to take great personal risks even though she possess no real skills to survive in the outside world. Finally, the heroine, in Raederle, is fiercely determined to be treated as an equal. She's also the fifth or sixth most powerful being on the planet (more on this).

So that's good. The novel is also Epic in scale, and it deals with people who are truly Excellant in their abilities, which I always approve of. However, these people are so excellant that the third book ran afoul of the Wraeththu Syndrome, or the Problem with Superlatives. See, the Riddle-Master sereis starts with the Prince of Hed being the cleverest Riddler ever, astonishing the Masters, who are the wisest, most respected people in the world. So on page 1 the main character is wiser than the wisest...

In time he meets the Wizards, long thought to have all died out, but before long it's clear that he's way more powerful then they are, except of course for the Founder, the one wizard more powerful than all the other Wizards put together. Surely this one will be a match for our hero! But no, by the second novel he's much more powerful than that, and now there's a new threat--a race of beings so powerful that the Founder (who was so powerful that the Wizards (who were so powerful that the Riddle Masters (who were so powerful that the Kings (who were the most powerful people in the realm) did whatever they commanded) bowed before them) couldn't match his power) was like unto a child compared to them. And of course, that elder race is bound and constrained by the awesome might of the High One, wiser and more potent than all of them can match. Whew!

It's the traditional path, in which a ignorant farm boy slowly grows into his power and eventually rules the kingdom--except that it starts with the hero already ruling the kingdom, and growing into some sort of cosmic entity. It's fun to watch the scope become more and more macro, but things get silly quickly, and the impact is greatly lessened. In the second book the characters get to do cool magics and learn shape shifting and stuff, but by the third book the scale of magical power is so vast that it becomes largely metaphoric, with people suffering "nameless agonies" and what not, and it's a little difficult to follow the precise plot.

Nevertheless, in general, this series was k-rad, frickin' awesome to the max. Regardless of the "most-powerful-evar-except-for-everyone-else" silliness, the writing is always decent, and often fabulous. I read all three books in about three days (which was arguably not a very good idea--surely I could have spent that time moving into my new home or, at least, catching up on my sleep?).
Joanna Burke2008-10-14
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