The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia A. McKillip
Just to be upfront, Patricia A. McKillip is my all time favorite fantasist. She is absolutely brilliant. Her lush novels always have this immense feeling of depth that you just get to glimpse here and there, with maybe a brief immersion or two. They leave you craving more, though you are also strangely satisfied. Her prose is crisp, clear but also creates a world of lyrical beauty that matches the Kinuko Y. Craft cover paintings that adorn so many of her novels. I always feel like I've been treated to a new fairy tale after I read one of McKillip's latest -- at once familiar and dear, but also dark and twisted and dangerous, like the original tales of Grimm and Perrault before Disney got to them.
Her latest novel, published in 2008, is no exception. The Bell at Sealey Head evokes something of an 18th or 19th century feel, wholly embedded in a very real village balanced on stormy sea cliffs, but the fey world steadily encroaches on the unwitting villagers, with a few notable exceptions. The innkeeper, a serving girl and her wild hermit mother, a merchant's daughter all have something more to say about why, each day at sundown, a bell rings out. A bell, that is, that no one has ever seen or located. The lady of the land lies in her deathbed and her heir comes to visit with an entourage of silly courtiers, throwing the sleepy village politics into a whirl. Meanwhile, a disheveled scholar arrives ink-stained and loaded down with books, seeking more of the bell and its world. The locals must help the strangers find their paths and positions in the village while dealing with increasing (and increasingly menacing) fey activity.
We are also treated to a glimpse of the parallel fey realm, seen through the dangerously curious eyes of a young princess who merely wants to know why. Her world is one of rules and duties, each more nonsensical than the last, but each of which must be followed to the letter at peril of death and doom. As the two worlds draw nearer and nearer, the young girl must learn to ask the right questions of the right person to free her world and that of the mortals.
There is a sweet courtship over books and curiosities, courtship kept secret to protect lives, bonds of family and friendship in both the mortal and fey realms. The characters are ones you would like to be friends with -- or ones you too would fight with all your strength.
I really encourage you to go out and buy each of McKillip's beautiful novels and story collections, but if you at least read her latest, I think you'll see why she is my favorite fantasist. Though others may reach her level in their own genres, none of them can do fantasy and fairy tales so beautifully, dangerously, achingly daringly well.