Exploring why I’m beginning to like Patricia A. McKillip…

Title: Alphabet of Thorn

Author: Patricia A. McKillip

Genre: fantasy

Pages: 314

Days to read it: 3

Suggested Reading Atmosphere: Don’t get distracted or impatient while reading this book. Just enjoy it. Read it for the love of language and storytelling.

Synopsis: Deep in the half-forgotten wings of the underground library, a young girl with ink-stained fingers skilfully translates lost languages from ancient texts. One day, Nepenthe comes across an old tome that no mage from the Mage’s School was able to translate – a tome written in a thorn-like alphabet. To others, the translated story is just another soporific history about the famous heroes Axis and Kane, but Nepenthe finds herself strangely drawn to its language. Even as others begin to worry about her sudden obsession, she feels a strange urge to complete the translation of this alphabet of thorn, to discover… who knows what?

Impressions: I first heard about Alphabet of Thorn from Charlotte’s Blog about heroines who read or spend lots of time in libraries.  I immediately thought of Lirael by Garth Nix, of course, and how much I enjoyed reading about her exploration of the hidden and mysterious depths of the Clayr Library. What is it about libraries that makes readers feel so giddy and happy, aside from the fact that there are so many things to read in there? Is it the smell of all those books? To me, I think it’s the prospect of being left alone for a while, in silence, so that you can dream about all the great stories hidden in the paper that are waiting to emerge. I would be one of those librarians that hisses, “Shhh!” to people who talk in libraries. For me, libraries seem to have an air of intrigue and mystery, as if, at night, something strange happens and the world between dream and reality is a little more porous than usual. Maybe I’m romanticizing libraries, but I like to think of libraries in this way. Hours of thoughtful silence with a subtle hum of excitement. I wish my libraries had more tiny nooks and alcoves for readers to hide in and bury their noses in stories undisturbed and undiscovered.

by littlepinkpebble
by littlepinkpebble

There is no better example of this out of the world journeying than Patricia A. Mckillip. She has such a nice, lyrical and imaginative storyteller’s voice.  My only qualms are that, the words move so smoothly from the page, to my eyes, to the images in my mind, that they don’t stay there. They just go, zip, out the other side of my conscious, leaving only a feeling of the book behind. I don’t remember the stories themselves. I just remember how I felt after reading them. I don’t remember heroes or villains, romances or wars – I just remember, “Hey, this book leaves behind an imprint that kind of reminds me of the ancient sagas or epics of old”. I can’t believe that I could be complaining about a book that reads so smoothly that if I were trying to make a pudding out of it, I’d have no complaints! Reading this book now, though, I find that I’m not feeling as neutral about Patricia A. McKillip’s books as I usually am. I enjoyed The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Changeling Sea and Alphabet of Thorn – either my tastes have changed or, I’m betting, I’ve gotten a bit more patient at letting things soak in and just enjoying my reads instead of “Power Reading”.

Even though some of her works haven’t been that memorable with me, I still suggest that if you’re a newbie reader or writer of fantasy, you should try some of her novels. As a person who likes to dabble in writing, I learned lot about the art of painting mental images in your reader’s minds – how to make quiet scenes between two individuals take on epic proportions – how to infuse your stories with subtle humour in surprisingly tacit ways.

Hmm, I guess I didn’t really talk about the book itself in this review. But, how appropriate is that? I think Patricia A. McKillip’s appeal is more than the story itself, but extends to the writing style of all her works. She very subtly works her way into your memory.


I love this passage because I can relate to it. I find myself yearning for some moments of silence that stretch on until you forget your troubles. Living in a big family, than living at residence, can be the total opposite of that. I’m constantly scouting for silence.

In the morning, before breakfast, she went to the wood.

It was not a conscious decision. She found herself awake early, and restless. The dawn sun spilled gold across the stones around her bed. She dressed herself; no one was awake to stop her. She wandered through side corridors, down narrow, winding stairways no one had used for a century or two, where every arrow-shaped window overflowed with light. That was not far enough. Light drew her farther, past stables, through gardens where she breathed the scents of brine and early roses. The plain, she knew, would be a great, gilded, shinning thing where winds like wild stallions raced from the sea to the end of the world. But when she went through the last of many gates in the maze of walls around the palace, she saw the flapping pavilions, dogs chewing on last night’s bones, servants sleepily poking up their fires and trying to quiet children running half-naked and laughing through the light.

Tessera passed around them, not noticing how wide a berth she had to give her well-wishers just to try to find some place where no one would want anything from her, not a smile, not a word, where the people ended and the empty plain began again.

The wood suddenly filled her eyes, crouching like some dark feral thing on the horizon. She had forgotten that, too, along with the pavilions. It hid itself occasionally, she guessed, which must be why she always seemed to come across it unexpectedly. Lured by light, she had already walked a long way around the pavilions. Now dark, silence, secrecy tempted her, all the mysteries hidden within the wild wood.

Rating: 4/5 civilizations conquered


– Here’s a quote from Patricia A. McKilliip on writing fantasy, which I think really captures her style of writing (I prefer this one to the green-eyed one…):

I write fantasy because it’s there.  I have no other excuse for sitting down for several hours a day indulging my imagination.  Daydreaming.   Thinking up imaginary people, impossible places.  Imagination is the golden-eyed monster that never sleeps.  It must be fed; it cannot be ignored.   Making it tell the same tale over and over again makes it thin and whining; its scales begin to fall off; its fiery breath becomes a trickle of smoke.  It is best fed by reality, an odd diet for something nonexistent; there are few details of daily life and its broad range of emotional context that can’t be transformed into food for the imagination.  It must be visited constantly, or else it begins to become restless and emit strange bellows at embarrassing moments; ignoring it only makes it grow larger and noisier.  Content, it dreams awake, and spins the fabric of tales.  There is really nothing to be done with such imagery except to use it:  in writing, in art.   Those who fear the imagination condemn it:  something childish, they say, something monsterish, misbegotten.  Not all of us dream awake.  But those of us who do have no choice. (obtained from this website)

– Here’s a full panorama of Kinuko Y. Craft’s artwork which I love so much! I love it when the cover art actually relates directly to details from the book, and Kinuko Y. Craft does a good job being faithful to the story:

There’s the stag with the fire in its antlers, and the book with the thorny alphabet itself being passed from Bourne to Nepenthe. It’s just so detailed and beautiful!

Other reviews:

A Garden Carried in the Pocket

Blibliophile Stalker



  1. You know, I love a bookish heroine, but I sometimes feel like (not getting at Patricia McKillip here – just an observation) authors use that as a shortcut for ever having to give the heroine a real character. It’s like, She likes books! Love her forever!

    (Wow, I’m crabby today.)

  2. I’ve only read a few McKillip books, and I felt kind of indifferent about them- forgot them easily. Perhaps I should try this one, and remember to just enjoy the story, not dig deep. Thanks for including that link to Charlotte’s list- there’s lots of interesting-looking books on there I’ve never heard of!

  3. I’m glad you liked it! I know what you mean about not exactly being able to remember McKillip’s stories…many of them are very dreamlike in my mind. Should you want to try another McKillip, you might do worse than Riddlemaster of Hed, which sounds like a dorky book but which is really the start of a brilliant trilogy…

  4. Okay, this review convinced me: I’m going to try Patricia A. McKillip! I’m going to the bookstore this weekend, so I’ll look for The Changling Sea or Alphabet of Thorn.

  5. I LOVED the Clayr Library, so that alone makes me want to read this. I can see Jenny’s point too, though, and the saddest thing is that I’d totally fall for that 😛

  6. Jenny – True true. Sometimes authors use it as a gimmick. But, generally, it does make me like the book a little more than I would have =) And I suspect your grumpiness may be due to the upcoming school toiling (if you are in school)?
    Jeane – You nailed it exactly! I just keep on forgetting about what exactly the stories are about. I know I’ve read several of her work, but I can’t remember distinctly things that I liked or disliked. I was just…meh about them.
    Charlotte – Thanks for posting it! I love book memes but am usually too lazy to do any of them =P I didn’t know she wrote a trilogy? I always thought she wrote single books.
    Allegra – If possible, try Changeling Sea first – it’s short but sweet!
    Nymeth – You’re not the only one, that gimmick totally works on me, too. Unless I’m as grumpy as Jenny at the moment… =P

  7. You know I’m a huge McKillip fan.
    “I think Patricia A. McKillip’s appeal is more than the story itself, but extends to the writing style of all her works. ”
    So true. She has a way with words that I envy. She is, like you said, a storyteller much like the old sagas and epics. She weaves worlds out of thin air.
    Are you a Tolkien fan? Her Riddle-Master trilogy is fantastic but obviously inspired.
    I read Alphabet when it hit the shelves. It ranks up there with her best. The main character is very strong in this one…as you’ve hinted at, sometimes her characters fade easy, but not this one.
    Thanks for the review.

  8. I love McKillip’s books. I discovered her when I was 12 or 13, and here I am, 40 something, still getting all excited when a new one comes out. I love her lyrical prose, fantastical settings and complex characters. And you are right about the artwork – at first I couldn’t remember which story this one was, but one look at that picture and it all came rushing back. I suddenly feel the need to read one of her books! 🙂

  9. KrisSquared – Have you read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld? It’s my favorite of her works! This one was also quite outstanding in terms of how vivid the characters stood out to me after I read the story.

  10. darla d – Patricia A. Mckillip has always been in my radar. I like to fall back on your books once in a while as a comfort read of sorts, since her writing is so beautiful. I love her humor too! It’s so subtle.

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