Patricia A. McKillip,
Alphabet of Thorn
(Ace, 2004)

Patricia A. McKillip offers yet another luminous tale in Alphabet of Thorn.

The Royal Library of Raine is the only home Nepenthe has ever known, its librarians and scholars the only family along with all the other orphans raised to be transcribers. She spends her days in the library deep under the castle with little or no awareness of what goes on beyond her books and scrolls and is barely aware of the coronation of a new queen, a girl younger than Nepenthe scarcely believed capable of keeping one crown, let alone the 12 over which she has dominion.

Nepenthe emerges from the library to accompany another transcriber to the school for mages that floats over the strange and shifting forest nearby, in order to pick up a book the mages cannot translate. When the other transcriber balks at entering the forest, Nepenthe rides in alone and receives the book from one of the students, a minor noble named Bourne. The letters in the book resemble brambles and thorns, and although Nepenthe cannot explain it, the spiky letters call to her. She conceals the book from her fellow transcriber and the scholars, determined to translate it alone.

The book tells the story of Axis, a legendary and long-ago emperor and conqueror, and his silent, veiled companion, the sorcerer Kane. Nepenthe learns that Kane is the author of the tale, written in the secret alphabet of thorns she devised with her best friend and favorite playmate, Axis, as a child. It is only here that she reveals her identity, which was long concealed from everyone but Axis.

Nepenthe cannot stop translating, even as she realizes its implications not only for herself but also for Tessera, the fragile young queen in the palace above. Meanwhile Vevey, an ancient sorceress, struggles to give Tessera the tools she needs to hold her kingdom together.

The stories of Nepenthe and of Axis and Kane interweave, exactly like the branches of a briar, completely ensnaring the reader. McKillip once more demonstrates her ability to create a unique world and appealing complex characters, using rich and vivid language and imagery that lend elegance to the ordinary. The lucid narrative covers the range of human emotion as it unfolds and even makes gentle commentary on how the authors of the commemorative record create a legend.

As with McKillip's other recent novels, Kinuko Y. Craft provides the lush, intricately drawn cover that is as delightful as the book itself. One can easily spend hours studying the details of the artwork. The smaller size of the book makes it a joy to hold and to read.

Alphabet of Thorns is an accessible and excellent introduction to McKillip's work and a must-have for those who already enjoy her work.

- Rambles
written by Donna Scanlon
published 10 April 2004

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