Patricia A. McKillip’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe is a unique story that centers primarily around an old and (incredibly) powerful mage named Atrix Wolfe, a mute scullery maid who the kitchen workers call Saro, and a teenage mage in the making, Talis. As a brief overview, without giving too much away, I will say that ths one-of-a-kind novel begins on an open field in the midst of a war between House Kardeth and House Pelucir. This is also where we first meet Atrix Wolfe, who is known as, perhaps, the most powerful mage in the world. In a moment of emotion and desperation, and in a time of cruelty and death, Atrix Wolfe gathers his energy and power to put an end to the rampant suffering and horror that surrounds Hunter’s field. Little does he know, what he unleashes on that dark night is something terrible; something beyond his comprehension; something that will haunt him and everyone involved forever.
That’s when the story flashes forward 20 years, and we meet young Talis, who is currently taking residence in Chaumenard to learn the art of sorcery. He also happens to be the son of the king Pelucir, who died on that tragic night on Hunter’s field. After being called back to his home of Pelucir by his Brother, he leaves the mage’s school; though not alone — he takes something strange with him. An odd unmarked book he found one night; a book with no name or label, just vaguely written spells that seem to hold some sort of power. Little does he know, this is a book written by the one and only, Atrix Wolfe. A book which holds words of secret, and undesired meanings; A book that in itself, bears the scars of what happened on that fateful night. A book that holds a terrible power — a power that could respark the horrible entity that ended the battle on Hunter’s Field; a power that will change Talis’s life and disturb the already haunted ruins of Pelicur once again.
Lastly, this is also where we meet Saro, a strange young Scullery made who works and sleeps in the kitchens of Pelicur. For Saro, her only language lay within the scrubbing of a pot or the stirring of a cauldron. For her, she has no words — no voice — the only thing she truly has is her job in the kitchens, and that job defines her completely. While she does respond to her name, which was given to her by the kitchen staff, “Saro”, meaning, “someone’s sorrow”, she has never spoken since they found her on that horrible night; found naked, lost amongst a pile of wood. Though Saro is simply the pot cleaner, a girl who is rarely noticed — she holds a strange secret past — one that no one is aware of, not even herself. Though to the kitchen staff, her existence is simple; she never speaks, and all she knows of life and the world is her large washing cauldron, inside she is alive, aware, simply lost within her forgotten past. A past that will soon be revealed by Talis and Atrix Wolfe, who’s lives all seemingly intertwine as the plot pushes fourth.
To say the least, Patricia McKillip is one talented and highly skilled author! Her writing style is both unique and genuinely her own — it’s deep, poetic, artistic, dream-like, etheareal, emotional. Her use of words is absolutely stunning, and she relies heavily on her atmospheric style to carry her story (and it works). I found this novel to be stylistically beautiful, and I found myself on numerous occasions re-reading what I had just read, only to think “wow..” Some moments were just so good, I had to re-read them. Not many authors do that to me.
Aside from the beauty of the writing itself, I also quite enjoyed the characters, which were all unique and interesting, especially Saro. While Atrix Wolfe and Talis were both great and compelling characters, and I certainly cared about what would happen to them; she was by far my favorite (despite the fact that she never spoke a word until the end of the book)! Some of the most touching and heart-breaking moments revolved around her, and the way McKillip portrayed her character as a mute — speaking the language of the pots, understanding cleaning, food, everything else was drowned out sound, trying to choke up word..struggling.. etc..it was just so interesting. Her interaction between the kitchen crew..what they thought of her, getting an in depth feeling of what was going on in her mind, how she felt..how she saw things..her frustration.. I just can’t praise this character enough. She’s probably one of the most memorable characters I’ve read in a long time.
Though I enjoyed most aspects of this novel, especially her poetic, dream-like style, at the same time, I felt that in some areas it actually took away from the story itself — detaching the reader from certain happenings. For instance, some of the action scenes didn’t quite feel right in the way they were written — almost as if they lacked a much needed intensity. Some were so metaphorically driven, it felt almost as if I were reading a poem rather than an actual moment of danger. Though I generally like this type of writing (hell, I’m a poet), I believe it would have been more affective if the action scenes were toned down a bit, written in a more straight forward fashion rather than the mist-like quality that filled most of this novel. Also, for whatever reason, in the beginning of the book, I had a hard time (for a short period) telling the characters apart. I didn’t quite know who was who. Regardless of this, I felt the writing style helped far more than it hurt, and because of this, I was mesmerized and entranced from beginning to end.
All in all, this is a great book. From the hypnotic writing, to the great characters, to the unique plot — this was an enchanting, well acomplished stand-alone fantasy piece. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind fantasy novel with an excellent story (even mixed with a bit of folklore/mythology), you should definitely pick this up. Though I’ve only read one of McKillip’s novels (SO FAR), I can say that she is a talented writer, and if you’re looking for something a bit different stylistically, you’ll get it from her. I recommend “The Book Of Atrix Wolfe” to anyone who’s looking for a quick (though deep), unique read, that will hold you entranced and compelled straight from the beginning.