Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Romance In Fantasy Fiction: Constancy Amid Tumult & Patricia McKillip’s “Riddle-Master” Series


I have dedicated 2019 as my Year of Romance (#YOR) here on Supernatural Underground, specifically Romance in Fantasy Fiction (#RIFF) because Fantasy fiction is how I roll. ;-)

I began in March with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings (aka when romance is missing-in-action) and continued last month with Laini Taylor’sDaughter of Smoke and Bone, which is romance of the kind I loosely describe as “my enemy, my love.”

This month’s story, which is in fact a trilogy like both the preceding works, is Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster series, which comprises three instalments: The Riddlemaster of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist In The Wind. It also (roughly) bridges the first two books covered in terms of time period, with The Riddlemaster of Hed published in 1979. And it’s one of my favorite romances, as well as my favorite Fantasy series, so it had to be part of my #RIFF on #YOR. J

When I first read The Riddle-Master of Hed, I thought this was going to be very much in the style of The Lord Of The Rings (LoTR) with the romance very much in the background. (Don’t get me wrong, btw, I adored the story anyway, and still do.) In fact the treatment of Raederle, the romantic interest for our hero, Morgon, the eponymous Riddle Master of Hed, is initially very similar to that of Arwen in LoTR, i.e. she’s there in the background but she doesn’t play an active part in the story.

Although at least the reader knows that Morgon cherishes romantic notions in that direction – in fact it’s what kicks off the story. Morgon, who has won a supposedly unwinnable riddle game, learns that the King of neighboring An had promised to marry his daughter, Raederle, to whoever wins that game. I am sure you pick up on the classic fairytale overtones here! As it turns out, Morgon has actually met Raederle because he and her brother studied together at the Riddle-Master’s College, and yes, he is definitely interested in marrying her – although somewhat less sure of her views on the same matter. (In a very unfairytale-like way he actually thinks she should have a say in the matter…)

So he sets sail to meet Raederle again and ascertain her inclination, which is when (of course!) matters gang awry, with Morgon first being shipwrecked then finding out that a mysterious and powerful people are trying to murder him. Rather than marrying the woman of his dreams, he is instead swept up in a complex and dangerous riddle game, which takes him a quest journey across the face of the Realm (which is the name of the world in this series.)

So we never get to meet Raederle at all in Book 1, although she’s always there in the background of the story. He also makes friends with another young woman called Lira, so as reader you think maybe that’s where the real romance going to be, although she reminds Morgon of his kid sister, which is hardly a promising indication…

So you can imagine my surprise – and yes, delight, dear readers – when I opened Heir Of Sea and Fire and started reading, and boom!, there I was in Raederle’s point of view. And not only is she the main character in this book, she’s setting out – with Lira and Tristan, Morgon’s kid sister – to find and rescue him. This mission naturally takes them on a quest-journey across the Realm where they also run foul of Morgon’s mysterious enemies and Raederle finds out that she, too, has a destiny…

I mean, only think, dear readers – a heroine and love interest with a destiny as well. If not for Eowyn, I would have thought the great JRR must be spinning in his grave at this point. It’s nothing new now, but back in 1979 I imagine it must have been quite revolutionary, especially in epic fantasy literature.

The third book, Harpist In The Wind, returns to Morgon as the point-of-view character, but he and Raederle are together throughout most of the story  and part of why they ultimately win through is because they’re together. I’ve always found their romance really satisfying for that reason, but also because it’s very much a relationship between equals. In terms of the style of romance, because of Morgon and Raederle’s relationship before the story starts, I think it has elements of the “boy and girl next door”, as well as “friends and lovers” that transitions into “ever after.”

As romances go, I would also describe Raederle and Morgon’s love as gentle, rather than tumultuous. The events of the story provide the tumult, while Morgon and Raederle’s constancy, as well as their power, enable them to ride the storm – and yanno, that makes for pretty satisfying reading.

So if you haven’t read the Riddle-Master series yet – which you probably have since it’s now regarded as a classic – hie thee and read it. It’s a gorgeous tale, with gorgeous writing, and a worthy addition to the #YOR look at #RIFF.


Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and blogger whose first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. Her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night, Book Three) is Helen's most recent book and she is currently working on the fourth and final novel in The Wall Of Night series. Helen posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we

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