Alphabet of Thorn

Nepenthe has always lived in the labyrinth royal library of Raine. Rescued as a baby from the windswept cliffs outside, she has grown to age sixteen in a world encompassed by the library’s myriad books and scholars. Nepenthe’s skill at decoding unknown scripts brings her an old volume full of words like twining thorns. The alphabet is difficult, but as the story unfolds it draws her into it to the point of obsession.

Meanwhile she has fallen in love with Bourne, a young mage-in-training at the Floating School. Neither he nor her friend Laidley understand why the tale of Axis and Kane, a long-ago conqueror and his ruthless sorcerer, should exert such a spell on her. Such a history seems dry and useless to them. More urgent matters loom. Bourne’s uncle plots a rebellion against the untested, new young queen. Tessera, the queen, seems hopelessly vacuous to both them and her advisors. How can she ever hold her twelve vassal kingdoms together?

Like any scholar, Nepenthe justifies her obsession as needing to solve a puzzle. How can the book, supposedly written by Kane, tell of conquering kingdoms that didn’t exist until five hundred years later? The usual explanation of garbled recopyings don’t make sense. The eventual answer comes as a gash in the sky and a transformation on the earth.

Reading Patricia A. McKillip’s novels is itself like being drawn into a faraway world thick with magic. Words build trellises of thorns and wild domains in tame woods, where other, unpredictable events happen. The intricate style weaves a tapestry whose extra dimensions reveal themselves only gradually. Alphabet of Thorns does all this superbly. Readers who look for more realism in fantasy may wonder whether Tessera’s magic will be an adequate substitute for statecraft in future, or why Nepenthe’s true name, which plays so large a part in the story, is never revealed. Most fantasy fans, however, will just enjoy this glimpse into a world that works by different rules.