Sealey Head is a small town, perched above a harbour, where people mostly go about their everyday lives — managing an inn, running a business, selling their wares — with the main magic being in the stories written by Gwyneth and the books read by Judd, childhood friends who have become somewhat estranged as they grew up and had more responsibilities. The strange thing, though it’s now so normal that inhabitants of the town think of it entirely normal, is that every day a mysterious bell sounds. They have no idea where the sound comes from or when it began, though there are a cluster of stories and assumptions around it.
In the big house owned by a local aristocrat, a servant called Emma knows magic does exist, because every so often, she opens a door in the house and sees another world, and a woman she’s never met in this world. Princess Isabo lives a life strictly confined by ritual: light this candle, move this sword, fill the goblets of certain men but not others… and don’t ask questions.
Into that world comes a scholar, Ridley Drow, to shake everything up and make people confront the magic in their midst. It feels like such a typical story for McKillip: it has all her hallmarks in the handling, in the love of books, in the way the magic is handled, in the prose, in the way people relate to each other. So if you enjoy McKillip’s work, you’ll probably enjoy this as well: I certainly did, from the shy reconnection between Gwyneth and Judd to the chattering good-heartedness of Daria Sproule to the daring of Princess Isabo, finally asking questions and breaking the ritual routine.
It all builds up very nicely, but the denouement stumbled a little, for me. After all the build-up, knowing there’s danger and that their friends are in trouble, Gwyneth and Judd rush to Aislinn House to help… only to be thwarted by the fact that no one can open a way into Isabo’s world. Instead of doing anything, they settle down to wait… and the climax of the story happens entirely without them. It feels like all the characters build towards that, but only Ridley and Isabo actually get to see it. It feels odd that they’re left out of the main plot, even though Gwyneth and Judd’s stories are completed in other personal ways.
Also, there are some things I just… missed somehow in the climax of the book — some things seemed to come out of nowhere for me. I didn’t have a clue about the significance of the boat, for instance — or rather, I did realise it was significant, but the reason for its significance just didn’t seem to have been telegraphed at all, to the point where it felt like a deus ex machina. This isn’t a first for me with McKillip’s writing, and sometimes it’s possible she’s just being too subtle for me.
Overall, despite those quibbles, I enjoyed the book a lot, and McKillip’s writing is gorgeous. It’s a great read all the same.