Riddle of Stars Analysis
by Patricia A. McKillip

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Riddle of Stars Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Riddle of Stars is considered one of the classic works of high fantasy. Its plot unfolds like a riddle, and the reader is forced to solve the puzzles of the world in the same manner the characters must solve the riddles that are put to them. The trilogy follows in the traditions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1968) and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy (1977) but creates its own highly complicated, impressively detailed, beautifully described world in which language and power are linked inextricably.

Like the Tolkien and Le Guin trilogies, Riddle of Stars uses the idea that by naming a thing a person gains power over it. Although in Tolkien’s trilogy the underlying assumption is that absolute magical power is destructive and eventually will corrupt even a benevolent ruler, Patricia McKillip’s wizards believe that arcane knowledge is meant to be explored and utilized. Magic does not necessarily corrupt, as long as it is tempered with love. The bonds that keep McKillip’s characters from becoming wild and lawless are their desires to protect humble things such as family, hearth, and home.

Riddle of Stars, like most of McKillip’s novels, has a strong streak of feminism running through it. Her women must pit their wills and intellects against a frequently male-dominated world, earning the privilege of wielding the power that is their birthright. One of the things that makes her books so popular is that, unlike many fantasy novels with strong female protagonists, her characters generally manage to make peace with the men they love without having to deny their own urges or bend their principles.

McKillip is considered one of the great prose stylists in the fantasy genre. Her short fiction can be found in many of the more prestigious fantasy anthologies. Her earlier novels were heralded with critical acclaim, and in 1975 she won the first World Fantasy Award ever given for her novel The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1974). That novel contains the themes McKillip uses in most of her adult works, having as its protagonist a strong-willed woman who uses her wizardry to name the beast she most fears and desires.

After writing Riddle of Stars, McKillip primarily wrote young adult fiction and short stories until she created the world of The Sorceress and the Cygnet (1991) and its sequel, The Cygnet and the Firebird (1993). These two books continue her themes of strong, magic-wielding men and women who must fight to attain their power and learn to take control of their own destinies. The world created in these two books is rich and complex, a place where the constellations of myth and legend can come to life to warn humans to remember their attachments to home and humanity.

McKillip’s next novel, Something Rich and Strange (1994), won the Mythopeic Society Award. The Book of Atrix Wolfe (1995) continues the theme of names and naming, playing especially on the pun of an inhuman creature learning about sorrow and then being trapped within the concept and being called “Saro.” Although The Book of Atrix Wolfe is a beautifully written novel, it is less strongly plotted than some of McKillip’s earlier pieces and rehashes themes she previously used to greater effect. Riddle of Stars, for its imaginative landscape, strong characters, intriguing riddles, and glorious prose, is aptly considered the benchmark against which all of McKillip’s work, and indeed most high fantasy, tends to be judged.