Read for the Once Upon a Time V Reading Challenge.
Sealey Head is a sleepy little town on the edge of the ocean. There are several prominent families: the merchant Blairs, whose eldest daughter Gwyneth is being courted by Raven Sproule, the heir of wealthy gentlemen farmer’s family, but who instead fancies Judd Cauley, the son of the innkeeper of the Inn at Sealey Head. The fourth main family is the family of Aislinn House. Old Lady Eglantyne is dying, and her heir, Miss Miranda Beryl, arrives from the city of Landringham to bring excitement to the small town.
The enduring mystery of Sealey Head is the Bell, which rings once a day, and which no one knows the exact location. The depths of the mystery of the Bell are known only to a few, including Emma, the daughter of the local herbalist, and maid in Aislinn House. When she is in Aislinn House, she will sometimes open doors, and find not the room she intended to enter, but another version of the House, peopled with Knights and Princesses. The Princess Ysabo is the youngest Princess, brought up to participate in a number of rituals that must be done in exact order, but for which no one knows the reason. It is her friendship with Emma, that starts the events that will eventually lead to the solving of the mystery of the Bell.
This is a lovely book, filled with gentle magic – there is certainly magic here, but it’s used in the smallest doses. The real story is that of the people of Sealey Head, and they’re a wonderful group of people. Gwyneth is a writer, and her stories weave in and out of the larger story of the book. It’s such a regular activity within a fantasy story, and it’s these regular activities that make this story shine. Judd’s search for a cook for the Inn is a another example – a seemingly normal activity that can take greater significance because of its normality. This is why McKillip is one of my favorite authors – she elevates everything she writes about.
One final note: another reason I adore McKillip’s books is that her publisher, in a seemingly rare move these days, has engaged a brilliant cover artist for her books. This book features Ysabo and the crows in completely gorgeous detail. The bell itself, as well as some of the other residents of Aislinn House complete the back cover, all drawn in such a way that you can see they’re living with a terrible secret. It’s frame-worthy art, which seems to be a dying feature for many fantasy books today.