Fantasy Review: ‘Alphabet of Thorn’ by Patricia A. McKillip

Alphabet of ThornYoung orphan Nepenthe, adopted into the royal library as a child, works as a translator of ancient texts.  While working on commission that appears to be nothing more than a traders list a much more interesting text comes in.  Written in an alphabet built around thorns, Nepenthe quickly becomes obsessed, hiding the book from others and seeing things in it that no one else can.  Meanwhile the land around her has a newly coronated queen who is already facing a possible rebellion in one of her lands and a powerful magical user foresees an external threat to the land but is unable to pinpoint it.  Add in a young mage falling in love and learning he is more powerful than anyone thought and you have a whole lot going on in three hundred pages.

And for the most part the book pulls it off.  That is a lot of balls to keep in the air, but only a few were dropped by the author.  I’ll deal with those first so I can get back to the things the book does right.  There is a unnecessary love triangle, which thankfully didn’t get too ‘emo.’  The main love interest I found completely bland; anything he provided to the story could have been handled by a nameless extra just as well in my mind.  There are a few logic twisters; I wonder why every made up language is not only phonetic in nature but seems to have direct letter conversions.  And the leap of faith that causes Nepenthe to end up with the book in the first place was a bit hard to buy.

But all of this is so easily forgivable because the book was so good in so many ways.  Another example of a low action book can still have suspense and keep interest.  The highlight came from what is revealed in Nepenthe’s translations, and ancient story involving a couple of legendary figures.  I probably figured out the big reveal before I was supposed to but it didn’t upset me, it was a unique journey.  The love story that takes place in the past was everything the one in the present wasn’t.  Sweet isn’t the right word (in fact it is extremely one sided), but it is lyrical and exciting and passionate.

Did I say lyrical?  Something about McKillip’s writing just worked for me.  Not as lush in style as some of the masters of prose can be, but lyrical describes it fine.  Some simple poems show a writer who knows that she is good but doesn’t feel the need to show off.

A book that is short and sweet deserves a review that is the same.  Not for fans of action, and the short length doesn’t allow for the depth fantasy fans often expect.  But a well written book is a well written book, no matter the length, and I love a story that dares to try something different (even more so when it finds success in its originality).

4 stars.  My first time reading the author, but surely not my last.

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