(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...

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