This is the third McKillip book I’ve read, and my clear favorite so far. The spare, detached style puts one in mind of a fairy tale, but the story works because it’s a very human and emotional one; in the end the narrative detachment doesn’t distance the reader from the tale so much as prevent all the strong emotion from dragging it into melodrama.
The blurb is all wrong (and the cover seems to be based on the blurb): it’ll tell you it’s about a 16-year-old and implies that this is one of those tiresome stories celebrating its isolated heroine’s choice to give up solitude and learning in favor of marriage and motherhood. [I really have no patience for their aggressive rejection of unconventionality in favor of traditional choices and have to wonder about their appeal. Is it because most people make conventional choices (hence, why they're conventional) and feel that these books vindicate them?] Actually, after Sybel accepts a baby to raise in the first chapter, the book skips 12 years, and the real story is about how she is dragged into the scheming and enmity between kingdoms that she had tried to avoid.
I really enjoyed this: it’s a quick read (sure, there are 343 pages, but they’re tiny pages), and the story is compelling and feels fresh even though it was published nearly 40 years ago. It’s stripped down to the essentials, with the worldbuilding relegated largely to the background. The characters are well-drawn and come alive in the details, and their dialogue rings true, grounding the story in reality without jarring with the elevated tone of the narrative. I liked Sybel, with her pride and her lack of sentimentality or social skills, and quickly came to care about her story. But even the minor characters are well-drawn and their relationships believable. I especially liked the romance, which is sweet without being overly perfect, and the fact that Sybel needs her man to love her, not to rescue her or solve her problems for her.
The one thing I disliked was the ending: McKillip has a reputation for fuzzy sorts of climaxes and that is the case here; I also found Sybel’s abdication of responsibility rather less than triumphant, although that may have been the point. I had it all worked out that the Liralen was one's own soul, and that Mithran had lost his soul through his nefarious deeds and Sybel risked losing hers if she continued her quest for vengeance. And then it turned out to be the Blammor, and.... what? There must be some symbolic meaning behind that that I don't understand.
Overall, a well-written fantasy tale that uses no more words than necessary to tell an affecting story, and does a great job of combining fairy tale and reality. Some have classified it as YA, but this is one of those books you can tell was written before such classifications existed: younger readers could certainly enjoy it, but there’s nothing immature about this story, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to adults.