I was surprised that I loved ALPHABET OF THORN. Patricia McKillip's books had gotten increasingly, I'd say, surreal. Despite their brevity, the stories were heavily steeped in myth and evoked dreamlike images. As a consequence, I found them difficult to access or to remember. I hadn't even read the last three or more McKillips. Instead, I merely collected them out of nostalgia and an appreciation of Kinuko Craft's cover art.
What snagged my interest again? The dust jacket mentioned that the the heroine, the s16-year-old orphan Nepenthe, spends her life translating books in the royal library, and I've always liked young, bookish heroines.
The nearby school of mages wants the librarians to translate a book filled with words that look like thorns. Nepenthe is sent to meet the student mage, Bourne, who'll pass the book along. In that meeting she is struck by two enchantments: she is figuratively bewitched by Bourne and more literally by the book, a book that speaks her secret name and compels her to solve its mystery.
The translation of the thorn-filled book chronicles an obsessive, secret 3000-year-old love story between a warrior-king and a mage, Axis and Kane, who are also known as the Emperor of Night and the Hooded One. Their story is intermixed with that of the present day cast of characters: Nepenthe and Bourne, and the 14-year-old newly-crowned Queen of Raine and her ancient advisor Vevay. There are threats to the young and unsure queen's rule; she's been warned by magical means that that the gravest danger to the land comes from thorns. You can see where the past and present collide, yes?
I love all the magical elements in the story. Nothing is truly new; McKillip relies on myth and folklore for her imagery. Among the many familiar elements, there are girls disguised as boys, secret legacies, ancient slumbering kings, magical castles and woods, ensnaring brambles, and a king who reminded me of Alexander the Great. It all comes together in a truly magical fairy tale that achieves depth and becomes emotionally engaging mainly through the page-turning saga of Axis and Kane. Love and obligation play a strong part in the eventual resolution of the story, which ends on a poignant, uplifting, satisfying note. A definite recommend.--Preeti (14 Feb 04)