More enchantments and wonders from McKillip (The Tower at Stony Wood, 2000, etc.), here displayed in a tale where almost everybody forlornly carries secrets and sorrows they cannot share.
Brenden Vetch carries his grief like a sack of stones as he wanders far and wide, learning about plants by literally becoming them. In the snows of distant Skrygard Mountain, he comes upon a strange group of ancient, charred stumps, clearly alive and compellingly magical but impervious to his talents. Then the tall, semi-legendary, 400-year-old wizard Od tells him to go to King Galin’s school of magic, where they have need of a gardener. At the school, Brenden meets unhappy teacher Yar Ayrwood, constrained by King Galin’s chronic mistrust of unknown magics and unable to entirely rely on his lover, Ceta Thiel, whose cousin, the wizard Valoren Greye, enforces the king’s rules. Sulys, Galin’s daughter, is engaged to marry Valoren but finds he won’t listen to her; Sulys works her own small magics with needle and thread, water and wax, inherited from her grandmother but not approved by the school. In the Twilight Quarter, meanwhile, the dazzling but mysterious magician Tyramin again takes up residence. Tyramin’s public face is that of his beautiful daughter, Mistral, who must pretend that her own potent magic is nothing but illusion and spectacle, because it lies outside the royal purview. Od, clearly orchestrating affairs, must prompt a wholesale reorganization of events into a somewhat less melancholic configuration.
McKillip’s hallmarks are charm and elegance, diminished here by busy, fussy plotting, lack of suspense and little expectation that the characters might solve their problems by their own efforts.