I found the opening chapter for the Riddle-Master of Hed very rough. The opening chapter introduces us to Morgon, who seems to have no good sense whatsoever, gets into a random fistfight with an array of characters, meets a harper, and barely makes a reference to the three super-important stars on his head. If i were to judge this book by the first two or three chapters, I would put it into the recycle bin. The opening simply does not work for me. The first few chapters utterly fail to achieve a narrative. My belief is that these beginning chapters were among the earliest of McKillip's work, and that inexperience shows.
Why do I call Morgon an idiot? Well, Morgon is a riddle-master, trained in knowledge. He tells the story of how he went to a tower to win a crown from a ghost. Fair enough. Yet somehow, despite being trained in knowledge, he did not know that the King of An had offered his daughter's hand to whoever won that crown. Even more spectacular, his best friend is the son of that king and the brother to the girl, and he still doesn't know these things. How does that happen? The only possibly explanation is that Morgon is an idiot, which explain much of the remaining book with ease.
The beginning does feature a wonderful narrative, one that I wanted to know more about, but that narrative is only referred to. Morgon goes to the ghost of a dead king, willing to lose his life to win that crown. Why? A great story hands on that, but that story wasn't told to us.
The opening chapters also dump a vast amount of information at you. Rather than read these chapters, I fell back to scanning through the text. The signal to noise ratio of those early chapters was rather poor. In my opinion, there was too much noise to too little narrative. Even later on in the book, I found myself skipping all the details, often skimming from dialog to dialog.
McKillip is certainly a detail-oriented writer. She goes on for extended lengths on what is: what is seen, what is done, what is noticed, and what is said. Her prose is very literalistic, leveraging very little simile and metaphor within description. If anything, this betrays her inexperience. In later books, her narratives read far more naturalistic.
The novel itself follows a walkie-talkie structure. The plot turns around people who get together, share information, come to reasonable conclusions, and then move onward. So much plot lies within conversation that I find it a bit maddening. The conversation are also chock full of lore and detail, but almost entirely absent of human emotion or social jousting. To ridiculous extents, people in the story are quite well behaved and rational even when they are neither well behaved nor rational.
Areas seems to have the simplistic, modular structure that is so familiar to fantasy. One area is a city of THIS while another area is a city of THIS. This is a fine fantasy tradition, which hails back to Swift, certainly, and possibly to the Odyssey. However, areas doesn’t really seem to matter and everyone acts mostly the same.
Of special note is the harper. I had forgotten just how prevalent harpers were in 70's fantasy. I must remember to subvert that tradition in my own books. That they play of role of information gatherers fits well with other harpers of the time. If anyone wants a good paper to write, pick the user of harpers in high fantasy of the 1970s.
Of the fantastic elements, McKillip had some interesting ideas, such as land rule, the nature of wizards, and the great unsaidness of magic, but I think that these were all underplayed and poorly executed. I say that because in later books, she figures out how to present these to the reader in a far more effective and engaging manner.
In summary, I found the novel somewhat simplistic and dull, betraying in no way the improvements that would soon follow in her narrative. I was left with almost no opinion of the characters, neither fearing for them nor sympathizing with them.