Patricia A. McKillip, The Sorceress and the Cygnet (Ace Books, 1991)
Patricia A. McKillip, The Cygnet and the Firebird (Ace Books, 1993)

Reprinted in an omnibus as Cygnet (Ace, 2007)

The Cygnet series is a pair of books worthy of McKillip's reputation for the numinous and lovely. Both are full of magic, though they are as different as two sides of the same golden coin. In The Sorceress and the Cygnet, Patricia A. McKillip introduces the reader to the Ro family and captures the confusion, anger, despair, fear and otherworldliness that results when ancient common stories come to life and reveal the secret realities behind our songs and folk tales. The Cygnet and the Firebird continues the adventures of the Ro family as they encounter a whole new world and a new set of emotional and magical dilemmas. While both of these novels can be read independently of each other given their stand alone plot lines, they each take place in Ro Holding and involve the developing relationships and personalities of the Ro family, and when read together form a richer tale that plumbs the depth of loyalty, sense of place, love, and magic.

The Sorceress and the Cygnet would have you believe that there is considerably more to story, myth, and folklore than a good tall tale. Well yes, any fantasist, storyteller, psychologist, or folklorist can tell you that. But that being said — how would you react if the Big Bad Wolf actually showed up at your door one morning and asked you to help him eat a certain crimson-cloaked little girl? I imagine you'd be a trifle spooked. Well, something quite similar seems to be happening to Corleu. Corleu has always been a misfit among his people due to his unnaturally white hair — the result of his great grandmother's encounter with a stranger amongst the cornfields. On a trip through the swampy Delta, the Wayfolk find themselves caught in a time out of time, where summer eternally dies and winter never seems to arrive, and Corleu, with his love of ancient stories and his unusual birthright, is the only one who can see past the illusion. Soon, he finds that the very constellations are not just ancient stories written to explain the night sky, but are indeed very real, and they have a purpose. If Corleu is ever again to see Tiel, the love of his life, he must find and acquire an item of value and hand it over to these powerful beings out of time. His journey will take him to the swamp house of Nyx Ro, the wayward sorceress daughter of the royal house of Ro Holding, and finally all the way to the symbol and seat of Ro Holding's power, the Cygnet. Protecting the Cygnet is Meguet Vervaine, a swordswoman with more power than she knows and a fondness for the house's Gatekeeper, Hew, who shares her deep loyalty to Ro house. McKillip deftly weaves the ancient struggle between old archetypal powers such as the Cygnet, the Gold King, the Dancer, the Warlock, and the Blind Lady with the movement of the small, eccentric ruling family of Ro Holding and the issues of power, love and duty to place and home that binds them all together.

The Cygnet and the Firebird continues the adventures of the Ro family of Ro Holding, where the threads of magic and time deepen to once again entangle Nyx and Meguet in a fight to protect their house and heritage against attack. This time, it is not the ancient powers of their own world they have to deal with, but the complex trials and woes of nearby worlds, accessed only through deep magic and webs of time. When a strange Firebird flies into Ro house, chaos erupts. Every desperate, haunted cry of the bird changes the mundane into the jewel encrusted and extraordinary. At night, for a few brief hours, the Firebird becomes a desperate haunted man named Brand. Only Nyx is capable of helping Brand, and that journey will take her through to another world, where dragons and deserts abound. Soon, as Nyx and Meguet struggle to unravel the puzzle of Brand and his family, Nyx learns lessons about love herself that she seemed to unable to learn previously.

As always, Patricia McKillip lives up to her stellar reputation for descriptive excellence. Her lyrical works have made her well known for mastering an intricate smith craft of prose, a tempering of precious metals, an alchemy of turning mere words into worlds that are so deliciously and extravagantly rich one may feel inclined to stop and catch a bit of breath. While The Sorceress and the Cygnet is certainly no exception to this rule, there is a certain dark, quiet, measured feel to it that grants it a depth and resonance sometimes lost in works that aspire to combine poetry with prose. This novel has more sand and swamp in it than gold and diamonds. The archetypal, primal power of the Gold King and his crew are made startlingly real, and their solidity makes the reader's dreamy, confused walks through time and illusion all the more frightening. And of course, Meguet's practical attitude and the rugged earthiness of her Gatekeeper lover Hew also work to keep the heady richness of the imagery from flying off into the ether. The Cygnet and the Firebird, on the other hand, offers the reader a flashy spill of onyx and rubies, glittering dragons and grand magic that is as exciting and brash as The Sorceress and the Cygnet is filled with toads and dusty mirrored hallways. These two books can best be looked at as two sisters, related but different as day and night — one a scholar, the other a dancer, one with dust on her nose, the other with diamonds in her hair. And, of course, as often times with sisters, they complement each other perfectly.

As with much of McKillip's work, the meaning in these novels can be obscure. You may occasionally be lost, wondering bemusedly if you missed something along the way. It's such a beautiful place to be lost, though, that you may not mind so much. In and among the gem-laden word-gymnastics (which no McKillip fan could live without) there is a wealth of very well crafted storytelling here, which combined with some truly compelling characters and some wonderfully placed humor makes for a fabulous read. McKillip's talent for creating worlds out of dreams and spider webs is extraordinary. I would love to see a third book about the adventures of Nyx Ro and the Ro family, particularly alongside the reprint of these two novels. For fans of McKillip's work, as well as for those just discovering her amazing talents, these books are a necessity, though they may be difficult to find, as they've been out of print for a few years. Oh, but they are worth the work.

[Sara Sutterfield Winn]