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The Bell at Sealey Head    by Patricia A. McKillip order for
Bell at Sealey Head
by Patricia A. McKillip
Order:  USA  Can
Ace, 2008 (2008)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Patricia McKillip writes subtle and powerful fantasy with elegant turns of phrase that linger in a reader's memory. Her Riddle Master of Hed is a genre classic. More recent notable works include Song for the Basilisk, Ombria in Shadow, Alphabet of Thorn and Od Magic.

This fantasy centers on the mystery of an unseen bell that has always rung at twilight in the seaside town of Sealey Head. Patricia McKillip eases readers into the mystery, first introducing her engaging cast of characters. Judd Cauley struggles to keep the Inn at Sealey Head in business, despite the fact that his cook, Mrs. Quinn, serves meals that drive away guests in droves. He's delighted by the arrival of a solitary guest, traveling scholar Ridley Dow, who tolerates the food and lends books to the innkeeper. Judd has long loved Gwyneth Blair (a storyteller and the daughter of a rich merchant), but feels he has little to offer her. Wealthy Raven Sproule of Sproule Manor courts Gwyneth, abetted by his sister Daria.

Then there are those who inhabit Aislinn House. In the real world is Lady Eglantyne (who's at death's door) and her few servants, in particular housemaid Emma, whose mother is a wood witch. Emma has always been able to open doors inside Aislinn House into a parallel world ruled by cruel ritual - one filled with 'the gruff voices of knights, the lovely, passionate voices of the ladies, the echoes of quarrels, booming laughter, the magnificent, outlandish feasts' - where she has befriended Princess Ysabo. Neither dares cross the threshold to enter the other's world. Ysabo, filled with questions, has been raised with the mantra 'Don't ask why' and is severely punished when she does.

The plot thickens when Lady Eglantyne's niece and heir, Miranda Beryl, takes up residence at Aislinn House. Members of her entourage take rooms at the inn and stay to enjoy the excellent meals provided by Judd's new cook, Mr. Pilchard. Ridley Dow seeks out information on the bell to undo an evil deed of his ancestor's, and Emma looks for ways to help her friend Ysabo, who has been told she is to marry a knight who hit her. Patricia McKillip masterfully weaves these strands together into a delightful fantasy, that celebrates the love of books and storytelling and blends the everyday with high magic. The Bell at Sealey Head is not to be missed by fantasy fans.

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