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Alphabet of Thorn Paperback – February 1, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

Patricia A. McKillip is one of America's greatest fantasy authors. Her best known novels include Riddle-Master; World Fantasy Award winner The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; World Fantasy Award and Mythopoeic Award winner Ombria in Shadow; and In the Forests of Serre. Like its predecessors, Alphabet of Thorn demonstrates McKillip's mastery of prose and her knowledge of the human heart.

As an infant, Nepenthe was abandoned by her mother on the edge of a cliff so high no one can hear the sea below. Nepenthe was raised by the librarians of the Royal Library of Raine, and knows little of the outside world beyond what she reads. She has a gift for translation, and she alone has a chance of translating a newly arrived book, a mysterious tome written in an alien alphabet that resembles thorns. But Nepenthe has fallen in love with the high-born student-mage who brings her the book. And the thorns are exerting a strange power over her--a magic that may destroy not only Nepenthe, but the kingdom of Raine and the entire world. --Cynthia Ward --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Those who have bemoaned the death of the true fairy tale will be delighted by this charming foray from World Fantasy Award-winner McKillip (Ombria in Shadow). She skillfully weaves together two eras and two sets of believable characters to create a single spellbinding story that brilliantly modernizes a beautiful old formula: the clever orphaned foundling has no desire to seek out her parents nor ambition for high office; the powerful wizard is a disguised woman deeply in love with the conquering king, who treats his subjects kindly; the sullen young queen catapulted to her throne by her father's unexpected death turns out to have both skill and humor in unexpected places; the haughty witch finds herself honestly baffled by turns of events that she never predicted. Moreover, where another author might have played up slapstick clumsiness for cheap laughs, McKillip evokes compassion for the characters' frustrations as they take their befuddled steps toward their predestined meeting. Best of all, the strong female leads neither rail against nor submit to patriarchy. In this magical world blissfully free of bias, people are simply themselves, equally intelligent and witty and thoroughly capable while prone to the occasional error, in a manner that transcends feminism and becomes a celebration of essential humanity. The brisk sweep to the slightly abrupt conclusion leaves the reader longing for more.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Ace; Reprint edition (February 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0441012434
  • ISBN-13: 978-0441012435
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #552,961 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 25 people found the following review helpful By EA Solinas HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Fans of Patricia McKillip will know to some degree to what to expect in her novels -- magical atmosphere and beautiful, totally original plots. In her latest novel, "Alphabet of Thorn," McKillip delves into a strange language, and an invader who cannot be stopped.
The Twelve Crowns of Raine have a new queen -- very young, very timid and very unhappy. Lost in the shuffle is Nepenthe, a girl left to unravel old, mysterious alphabets. She was abandoned as a baby and raised in the library, and is quite happy there. Her knack with languages comes into play when she gets a book from student mage Bourne, the nephew of a possibly treasonous nobleman. The book is written in a language made out of thorns that no one except Nepenthe can decipher.
It tells the story of the warrior emperor Axis and the sorcerer Kane -- except that the book also shows that Kane was a woman. She was Axis's cousin, lover and right hand. What makes the book puzzling is that Kane claims to have helped Axis conquer countries that hadn't existed yet. As Nepenthe struggles to uncover the mystery of Kane and Axis -- and her own origins -- the queen of Raine is warned... about the thorns that will destroy Raine.
Patricia McKillip's novels are both predictable and unpredictable -- you can expect lots of rich language, ornate kingdoms, and enticingly weird magic. At the same time, you can never predict how that magic is going to appear. In "Alphabet of Thorn," McKillip tackles something old and something new, magicwise. On one hand, there's the floating magic school and stuff like that. On the other, there's Kane's frightening, majestic, bend-time-and-space magic.
As always, her writing is lush and slightly dreamy.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful By E. A. Lovitt HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on October 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It's hard not to fall in love with Patricia McKillip's characters, who try to do right in the face of an unknown but overwhelming doom. The new Queen is young and inexperienced, and many doubt that she will be able to hold the twelve Crowns of Raine into one dominion. One Crown openly revolts. But that isn't the doom that the mages seem to sense. The true doom of Raine has something to do with thorns.

Deep in the library tunneled through the stone beneath the palace, an orphaned transcriptor is translating a book received from the mages of the Floating School. It is written in an alphabet of thorn that only she can read. Could a book about the conquests of an ancient king and his shadowy mage bring about the destruction of Raine?

"Alphabet of Thorns" is a twining, cobwebby sort of tale. The author strays into this elusive type of story-telling when there is no strong villain such as the Basilisk-prince or the evil Domina Pearl plotting and spinning at the center of her novel. McKillip's "Ombria in Shadow" and "Eye of the Basilisk" are easier to read because of their villains. This fantasy is a-brim with the author's quicksilver, magical descriptions but it doesn't proceed directly from Point A to Point B. As much as the spirit is willing to linger in the wondrous Floating School for mages, or drink ponds of wine with the coronation guests, or descend to a hollow in the cliff where a skeleton sleeps "with a crown on its head and a great sword at its side," the eyes do sometimes wander off to a book with a brisker plot.

This is an intricate, spell-binding fantasy, but it's not McKillip's best.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Matt Berger on March 23, 2005
Format: Hardcover
With the ARC of OD MAGIC just arrived (thank you, eBay), I revisited this, one of my favorite of Patricia McKillip's recent novels. As before, the book is a pure pleasure, appealing as much to the bibliophile in me as to the fantasy reader.

McKillip may not be to every fantasy reader's taste. Devotees of the more accessible, facile sort of fantasy (see: Melanie Rawn, David Eddings, et. al.) may find her more fundamental influences and slightly archaic style a bit off-putting. Perhaps this explains why, even after myriad outstanding reviews and recommendations, her work lacks the widespread popularity of certain other fantasists; possibly the strong feminine viewpoint contributes to this as well. I see these as strengths: there is a consistency of character and setting, an established and maintained atmosphere in each of her books that rings wholly true; if her perspective skews towards the feminine, well, so much much the better for the immediate and strong female characters she draws, and the better to understand how the men that surround them truly appear.

ALPHABET OF THORN, moreso than much "traditional" fantasy, benefits from these attributes: set at either end of circumstance (and time), two women's lives unfold, drawing closer together as the intricacies of the novel compound: in our near view, a librarian, a foundling, with a passion for her work and a world only beginning to expand beyond it; at the far, a woman of great power who chooses nearly an opposite path. McKillip presents each with a clarity and depth that binds us to them, enveloping us as much in their lives and loves as in the story itself, which builds to a fine (if a trifle abrupt) conclusion.

Overall, I consider ALPHABET OF THORN (with OMBRIA IN SHADOW and SONG FOR THE BASILISK) as top-tier among the fine work Patricia McKillip has produced above and beyond the "Riddle-Master" trilogy. This is one to seek out in a fine first edition, and add to the permanent collection.
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