Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Ranking all of Patricia McKillip’s novels

So, yesterday I was thinking about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which I am not re-reading right now because at the moment I am not reading anything by anybody, having instead become obsessed with the book I am working on. Still, there I was, thinking about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

I can’t read it right now, because as I said, I am obsessed with writing at the moment, but I would like to re-read it, maybe soon-ish. (This joins a desire to read Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews and Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace, but all reading will remain on hold for the next, I don’t know, two weeks or so, probably.)

In the meantime, though of course I have posed about McKillip before, I don’t think I have ever taken a stab at ranking all her novels, so hey, I’m sure it will be an interesting exercise. It turns out I have not read one of her MG or perhaps YA novels, which, hmm, didn’t realize that, but used copies are pricey, so I guess I will continue to not read that. I’ve read all the rest, though! So let’s see how they stack up. 

From the bottom to the top, (almost) all Patricia McKillip novels:

25. The Night Gift. This is not actually a ranking. This is the one I haven’t read. I think perhaps it is not fantasy? There is no description at Amazon, but a helpful reviewer says this:

This is such a sweet and simple story about friends, that the positive messages slip in without a ripple to disturb the story. The three main characters include girls of different races, and one has a facial disfigurement…but that is not what the story is about … When the main character learns that the boy she has had a crush on forever, actually likes her friend and plans to ask the friend out, the main character avoids immature drama and finds a way to value her friendship above her acute disappointment… but that is not what the story is about either, it just happens along the way to being a story about unconditional love within families.

Sounds perfectly charming, but not remotely fantastic.

24.  Solstice Wood. This is an actual ranking. Though other titles are weaker as individual titles, the violence this book does to Winter Rose makes me put it dead last. SW completely changes how WR is read, and I hate this. SW is dead to me. I got rid of my copy. I wish I’d never read it. If that sounds strong, sorry. Dead last.

23.  The Throme of the Erril of Sherril. There’s nothing exactly wrong with this one, but it’s very light-weight compared to almost any other book of hers.

22.  Stepping from the Shadows. I didn’t like it. It is just not my cup of tea.

21. Something Rich and Strange. For whatever reason, this one did not actually work that well for me.

20. The Moon and the Face.  Not as strong a story as the first book of the duology, Moonflash. Felt to me like McKillip wanted to go on with the story, but was not sure what to do with it and just threw stuff in at random. I liked it, but, well, it’s pretty weak tea compared to most of her other books.

19.  The House on Parchment Street. I liked this story fine. If it had been written by somebody else, I would probably rank it higher. Patricia McKillip has so many great books out that this slight MG title gets shuffled back toward the end of the list. 

18. Kingfisher. I was sorry not to like McKillip’s most recent title better, but I did not feel this novel was as compelling as many of her others. It has some wonderful details and elements, but does not seem cohesive.

17.  The Tower at Stony Wood. I liked this book, but … not that much. The foundation of the story is set on a, what? A misunderstanding? Or a deception? Or what exactly?

It is now getting harder, as we move into the books I really liked a lot, but before we get to the ones I truly love with all my heart.

16.  The Bards of Bone Plain. I did not like this one so very much the first time I read it. It’s got something of the same “based on a misunderstanding” as the one above. But I liked it better on re-reading it a year or so again. I will re-read it again one of these days and see whether I might move it up. But it’s getting to the part where it’s hard to compete.

15.  In the Forests of Serre. I loved this one, especially some of the imagery.  I was not keen on Ronan, who ought, for heaven’s sake, to have seen that giving up his heart might possibly be a terrible idea.

14.  The Bell at Sealey Head. I loved this story. I did not realize, until someone pointed it out, that the important pov characters have almost no effect on the plot. So strange. McKillip got away with it, at least for me, because the story is so beautiful and the characters so appealing that I literally did not notice that. 

13. Od Magic. This is a quieter, more meandering sort of story with roughly a million pov characters, or at least it felt that way to me. Their stories connect only gradually and tenuously. I would not suggest that a reader new to McKillip start with this one.

12. Moonflash. I love this quiet, reflective story, in which the internal quest for identity is precisely echoed by the external journey. But I do not love the idea that the moonflash, of such central importance to the one culture, was in reality so trivial to the other.

We are now getting into the books I truly, truly love, so again, it gets hard to rank them. Let me see. Um. Fine:

11. The Sorceress and the Cygnet. A beautiful story with such a confusing ending. Incidentally, I read the beginning of this story over and over while writing the first part of The City in the Lake. This is the McKillip novel to which I turned when I was trying to figure out how to do compressed time, starting a chapter when Timou was a baby and ending when she was seventeen.

10. Fool’s Run. This is such a lovely novel. But . . . it is so sad. What happened to Terra Viridian is so tragic, and spilled over into so many subsidiary tragedies, and ultimately all of that happened for so little reason. 

9. Winter Rose. I love love love the way the story about the curse is different every time we come back to it, remembered differently by every character. 

8. Ombria in Shadow. The place is the protagonist. Ducon and Mag are fully developed characters; Lydea and Kyel are much less so; Domina Pearl is very one-dimensional, but she’s supposed to me. The heart of the story is the city. The ending, not unusually for McKillip, is puzzling.

7. Alphabet of Thorn. This book is a total masterpiece, except the ending is so quick and truncated.

6. The Cygnet and the Firebird. This story has my favorite dragon in all fantasy literature. But … it does not have my favorite ending. The story needed a third book, in which the relationship between Nyx and Brand could be brought to a resolution.

5. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. A lovely fairy tale. 

4. Song for the Basilisk. Pushed all my buttons in exactly the right way. Just absolutely loved it. Particularly Luna and her extraordinarily ambiguous relationship with her father. Incidentally, I notice it is only $4.99 on Kindle.

3. The Riddle-Master of Hed. A seminal work for me, I read this trilogy in my teens and it set my taste in fantasy forever. This is a more classic type of fantasy story — not so much a lovely gem of poetry disguised as fantasy, like so many of McKillip’s novels. 

2. The Changeling Sea. A perfect story. Flawless. Also, my copy has the incomparable Michael Whelan cover.

And for 1…. The Book of Atrix Wolfe. Also a perfect, flawless story. Plus with the single most perfect last line of any SFF novel ever.

It’s got the beautiful type of cover that characterizes McKillip’s books, but as far as I’m concerned, this ornate style can’t really compete with Whelan’s wistful girl above.

Okay, you may now tell me where I am completely off base! 

Which McKillip novel would you move dramatically up or down from where I placed it in my list?

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11 Comments Ranking all of Patricia McKillip’s novels

  1. Allan Shampine

    That is a beautiful Whelan cover. I’ve never actually read the book, but I have a framed copy of the print!

  2. Mary Beth

    I haven’t read THE CHANGELING SEA but would otherwise keep your top 4, with BASILISK above RIDDLEMASTER. Which was of course my first McKillip and I will be forever fond, but the opening chapter of BASILISK, with the ash in the fireplace opening its eyes, did something to me…

    Also on unrelated note I finished BLACK DOG STORIES III this week and it was so good. I can’t wait to see more of Tommy Lu and I am ridiculously proud of Ethan Lanning and I want Riss and Keziah to team up forever. Looking forward to COPPER MOUNTAIN!

  3. mona

    I’d say my top four are Alphabet of Thorn, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Riddle-Master of Hed, and The Changeling Sea in no particular order.

    I also really like Od Magic, Ombria in Shadow, and The Book of Atrix Wolfe.

    There’re actually quite a few I *think* I haven’t read, which is surprising! I thought I was pretty caught up on McKillip. I don’t think I ever got around to Song for the Basilisk or The Cygnet and the Firebird. I’ll have to do that soon. And I want to reread Fool’s Run and Winter Rose. Yay. Books!

  4. Elaine T

    I’m very fond of Ombria, and Basilisk as well as Riddlemaster. i went through a period of rereading Atrix Wolfe and Fool’s Run, but that stopped, and I’m not sure where I would rank them now.

    I have The Night Gift. I’d be happy to loan it to you, if you’re ever interested enough. i haven’t read it myself in ages, but remember it as a perfectly fine MG/YA contemporary novel. No fantastic elements.

  5. Evelyn M. Hill

    I don’t really consider Stepping from Shadows as a novel; it strikes me as a very thinly disguised autobiography. But definitely I’d put The Changeling Sea up at the top with Riddlemaster. I’d be inclined to move Fool’s Run higher up the list, though I agree with your conclusion about the conclusion.
    I’m sorry to say that Kingfisher annoyed me extremely. More points of view than clowns in a clown car. And I didn’t really like most of them. No, scratch that. I don’t think I liked any of them.
    There are a few more of her novels that I want to try, and I’ll put Basilisk on my list. But I’ll wait a while to take the taste of Kingfisher out of my mind.

  6. Rachel

    Well, for heaven’s sake, Alan, read the book!

    Mona, well now you know that The Cygnet and the Firebird has an unresolved relationship. But dragons!

    Elaine, I definitely appreciate the offer, and I would kind of like to read The Night Gift, but since right now I am not reading anything … perhaps someday. Or a copy will turn up at a reasonable price, if I feel I must be so complete.

    Evelyn, I agree about Stepping from the Shadows. I thought about leaving it off this list completely. I did not dislike all the characters in Kingfisher, but none of them appealed to me as much as McKillip characters usually do. Also, any plot element that involves obsession with a love interest probably is not going to appeal to me. But do try Basilisk.

  7. Rachel

    Thank you, Mary Beth! I’m so pleased you liked all the stories!

    I was pretty proud of Ethan myself, and I only started featuring him in stories in the first place because I didn’t like him much and didn’t see why anybody would, so I thought it would be nice to turn that around a bit. Now he and Thaddeus are really a great team!

    I would definitely NOT want Riss and Keziah after me, that’s for sure.

    I don’t know what’s in store for Tommy, but I’m sure I will figure it out.

  8. Elaine T

    Revisiting the thread to add: I have a lingering fondness for Tower at Stony Wood , which to me is an elaboration and re-do of McKillips very early The Throme of the Erril of Sherril. In both the questor who is acting for true love accomplishes many things not part of the quest but the world is better for his going. Even when he returns without what he went for.

    I still don’t know what to make of Kingfisher . I rather like the half brother character. But he’s it. And what was the basilisk episode doing in the book at all? Standard quest oddity is my best guess.

    And I need to think of how to write a review of Black Dog III. I see there are only 4. “Here are some good stories’ may essentially be it, but people like a bit more details. :-)

    Oh, Rachel, my Teen found a poem someone wrote sourced in your Griffin trilogy. I sent it to your gmail address in case you were interested. No, The Teen did not write it, although she does write poetry.

  9. Herenya

    That’s a such great cover for The Changeling Sea!

    I gave ranking McKillips some thought and the closest I could come is putting them into categories. I don’t remember all of them well enough to feel like I can fairly compare them, which is probably an indicator that it’s time to start rereading.

    Favourites: The Changeling Sea (perfection), The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (the one I’ve reread the most), The Bell at Sealey Head (totally satisfying), and Fool’s Run (contains some of my favourite McKillip lines). I don’t think these are necessarily her best but they’re the ones I connected with the most strongly.

    Top tier: Winter Rose, The Riddle-Master Trilogy, Ombria in Shadow, Od Magic, Moon-flash (and maybe The Moon and the Face), Kingfisher, The Book of Atrix Wolfe, Something Rich and Strange (because I found the setting so evocative). These are the others I found the most memorable and satisfying.

    Next tier: Song for the Basilisk, Alphabet of Thorn, The Bards of Bone Plain, The Cygnet and the Firebird, The House on Parchment Street, In the Forests of Serre. I liked all of these, except perhaps for Basilisk — but it was one of the first ones I read and I haven’t ever reread it.

    And then: The Sorceress and the Cygnet (I liked bits of it but it was ultimately too confusing), The Tower at Stony Wood, Solstice Wood, The Throme of the Erril of Sherill. Although maybe those last two should be in another, lower category.

    I haven’t read The Night Gift or Stepping from the Shadows.

  10. Rachel

    Elaine, thanks for sending the poem! And thanks to the Teen as well. I’m glad you mentioned it here: it got stuck in my spam folder for some reason, but I found it immediately when I looked for it.

    Also, now perhaps I will re-read Erril of Sherril and then Tower at Stony Wood and see if I appreciate Tower more.

    Herenya, isn’t it? Maybe I should look for a print myself.

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