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Alphabet of Thorn    by Patricia McKillip order for
Alphabet of Thorn
by Patricia McKillip
Order:  USA  Can
Ace, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

There's no question that Patricia McKillip writes great fantasy with an elegant use of language, her Riddle Master of Hed being a genre classic. Recently she addressed power and vengeance in her haunting Song for the Basilisk, and gave us a magical city bordered by its past in Ombria in Shadow. Time is once more a story element in Alphabet of Thorn.

It's peopled with the most engaging characters, first and foremost orphaned young Nepenthe. As an infant, she was abandoned by a gypsy mother on the cliff edge, and taken in and trained to be a scribe and translator in the huge edifice of the royal library of the Twelve Crowns of Raine. She has 'a gift for unusual alphabets'. Her friend Laidley knows many languages but 'could barely find words in any of them' around Nepenthe.

This kingdom at the edge of the world is going through a dangerous transition. The king has died, and the new young queen, Tessera, seems abstracted and lost, worrying her advisor, the great mage Vevay. Nepenthe acquires two manuscripts to translate, one that seems to her a language of fish and the other of thorns. The latter was brought to her from the Floating School and its magical wood by student mage Bourne. His uncle, the Lord of Seale, has designs on the throne. Nepenthe and Bourne become lovers.

Nepenthe obsessively translates the tale hidden behind the thorns, of a ruler and a mage, Axis and Kane, the 'Emperor of Night' and the 'Masked One'. As she uncovers the account of their love and conquest of 'the entire known world', history begins to intrude on the present. Vevay senses great peril for Raine from 'Thorns', Tessera gradually finds her own magic and her own way, and Nepenthe makes a pivotal choice.

In Alphabet of Thorn, Patricia McKillip brings us another brilliant tale of scholarship and magic, love and obsession. It's one of her best, which makes it an outstanding read indeed for anyone who enjoys the finest in fantasy.

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