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The Tower at Stony Wood
Like most of McKillip's recent novels, her latest is highly rarefied, but unpredictable, high fantasy. She assembles a number of fairy-tale traditions: the lady in a tower, the lone knight on quest, the mysterious old woman who knows way more than she should, the monster who preys upon travelers, and so on -- and runs them counter to the reader's expectations. The Tower at Stony Wood is beautifully written, but very disorienting, and not entirely successful.
The story opens as the king of Yves receives his beautiful young bride from the neighboring land of Skye, a fey country known for dragons and magic. Nobody in Yves believes in that sort of thing anymore, so it comes as a considerable shock to knight Cyan Dag when he turns out to be the only member of the court who can see that the lovely new queen is actually a hideous sea monster. The impostor tells Cyan that the true queen is trapped in a tower in Skye, guarded by a dragon, and will die instantly if she looks upon the world outside. (Evil gloating makes for great exposition.)
Cyan, who is steadfast, brave, and almost completely lacking in personality, can't even begin to convince the king or the other knights of this; so he rides off to Skye to rescue the true queen, somewhat hampered by having no idea of how to find the tower or how to free her. Fortunately for Cyan, one can't seem to turn around in Skye without knocking into a mysterious stone tower. Finding the right tower, however, proves to be a problem.
The prose is lovely and clear, poetic without being flowery, and full of glorious visual imagery. The scene where Cyan dives from the crumbling top of a tower, his arms wrapped desperately around a woman, is vivid and cinematic and, if you haven't read the book, almost entirely unlike what you're picturing right now.
As always, McKillip is a master at evoking a mood. Unfortunately, that mood is frequently confusion. Newcomers to McKillip are likely to find The Tower at Stony Wood inaccessible and confusing. Even experienced readers will spend much of the book wondering what the hell is going on. For those who stick with it, however, everything is neatly tied up at the end. This certainly isn't McKillip's most straightforward book -- which, for McKillip, is saying something -- but it's rewarding if you don't mind the mental workout.
-- Christina Schulman.
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