Patricia McKillip,
Solstice Wood
(Ace, 2006)

Solstice Wood is a bit of a departure for Patricia McKillip: it is both one of her rare contemporary fantasies -- her first since Something Rich & Strange -- and a sequel of sorts (a response? a companion?) to her Tam Lin retelling published 10 years earlier, Winter Rose. In its lyricism, somnambulistic imagery and negligible plot, however, Solstice Wood is pretty typical McKillip, for better or worse.

Considerably more than 10 years have passed since the events of Winter Rose. The magic wood continues to dwell in uneasy proximity to the human world, but that human world is now one filled with electricity, cars and cell phones. Just before summer's solstice, Sylvia Lynn, bookstore owner and city dweller, learns of her grandfather's death and reluctantly returns to the provincial town in the New York hills that she fled seven years ago. Little has changed in her absence, neither the appearance of normalcy nor the subtle enchantments of the wood -- enchantments that, according to local legend, nearly entrapped Sylvia's great-great-great-great-grandfather, Corbet Lynn, in the wood forever. But surely that was only a story?

Sylvia has reason to know better. She is not the only one to believe in fairies; the other women of the town, led by Sylvia's strong-willed grandmother Iris, meet one night a month to sew, knit and weave spells to keep the blandishments of the fairy world at bay. Only Sylvia and a handful of others in the town who see more than they should (and are not, perhaps, entirely human) realize just how futile these efforts are, and guess at how harmful to both sides they could be.

But it is not Sylvia who is finally endangered by the ongoing feud, but her teenaged cousin, Tyler. Everything is about to change on that one summer's solstice, the shortest -- and perhaps in some ways longest-- night of the year.

The basic plot of Solstice Wood is, when stripped down to the bone, simplistic and almost incidental to the poetic, atmospheric imagery of individual scenes. McKillip's language has always been her greatest strength. She writes gorgeously. Lines like, "Some of the dark, I realized slowly, was just that: the night I wasn't used to any longer, flowing over hill and field, no city lights to push it back, only stars, and the rising moon, and the occasional porch light in the crook of a mountain road to tell me where I was," make it possible to overlook most shortcomings, including a faintly ludicrous side plot involving a greedy capitalist.

As usual, McKillip's primary cast is quirky, more intriguing than intricate, and slightly distanced from the reader. Although the tale is told by different first-person narrators, including Sylvia, Iris and Tyler, McKillip's poeticism runs through all their voices, forming a cohesive, dreamy whole, perhaps at the cost of total individuality. Nonetheless, the setup is interesting because of the secrets the central characters keep from each other, and the multiple narrations lend a refractive quality to seemingly simple events. Magic makes itself subtly felt throughout a story otherwise much concerned with the quotidian activities of the baking, gardening and -- of course -- sewing done by McKillip's updated witches.

This is Patricia McKillip at her least ethereal. Plenty of understated magic runs through Solstice Wood, but the majority of the book is set in something that feels mostly like here and now. Fantasy readers who like their fare a little closer to magical realism -- a la Charles de Lint -- should enjoy this one, especially as no prior knowledge of Winter Rose is necessary, although together the two form an interesting dialogue about magic. But despite the details of ordinary village life and generally greater lucidity, Solstice Wood seems less solid than the more ambitious of McKillip's previous fantasies. The failure of certain really interesting peripheral characters, like Sylvia's lover, her long-dead mother and certain denizens of the wood, to put in more extended appearances is disappointing and adds to the air of fragile insubstantiality about the novel.

This is charming, slightly wispy reading for a summer's eve, readily forgotten by autumn.

by Jennifer Mo
13 May 2006

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