Once upon a time in an unnamed land, there were two sisters. One ran wild where she pleased through the untamed woods, seeking out the secret places where roses grow and springs arise, while the other stayed home by the fireside knitting lace for her dowry and keeping their father company as he smoked his pipe. One day, a eldritch handsome young man coalesced from a ray of sunlight…and Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose continues pretty much as you would expect for something based, somewhat loosely, on the Tam Lin tale. That said, I think it’s a good adaptation in that I didn’t realize until the second time I read the book that it was based on Tam Lin, despite McKillip having one of the characters say “You must hold fast to him, as fast as those thorns hold you, no matter what shape he takes.” (Duh!)
Solstice Wood is set several generations later than Winter Rose, though it’s about the same family and the same location; it’s brought up to modern times, with cell phones and airplanes, bars and (plant) nurseries and kindergarten teachers and bookstore owners, and teens with funny hair who don’t wash their feet as often as their grannies think they ought. It’s much more clearly set somewhere in the United States; the location isn’t specified but probably somewhere in one of the thirteen original colonial states, although it could be anywhere with hills and woods. The writing style is also modernized, with shorter sentences and clearer descriptions–no coalescing out of sunbeams here, but rather sneaking off to the rock in the middle of the creek to smoke when you think your parents aren’t looking, or rather sniffing. Solstice Wood‘s also told in first person narrative, but spread between five of the main characters rather than just the one. Multiple first person narrative can be difficult–indeed, this took me a couple of tries before I straightened out who was “on”, although McKillip does title each chapter with the name of that chapter’s narrator. In this case, I like it because it provides a perspective on the other characters’ feelings that we don’t get in Winter Rose; we can’t know exactly what Laurel or the father or Corbet are thinking–only what Rois thinks they are.
I haven’t had much luck with liking McKillip’s work previously1, so my reasons for picking Winter Rose up at the Bargain Books store a few years ago amount to nothing stronger than “I liked the cover art, and I needed a cheap paperback to read on an upcoming trip by air…which I wouldn’t mind abandoning at the other end.” Well, I liked this well enough to bring it back and keep it, and search out (unsuccessfully) a hardcover copy of same.
I may be unusual in that I actually prefer the distinctly different writing styles and settings of Winter Rose and Solstice Wood, as that prevents a direct comparison between the two books. All too often, sequels to books I’ve loved disappointed as the author tried to imitate what made the first book so successful and failed for any one of a number of valid reasons. Maybe their writing style changed in the intervening years, or tastes in literature changed similarly2. The two novels really are as different as night and day, or rather winter and summer; in the first, the fairy folk are presented as coldly distant, ensnaring unsuspecting humankind into a fey world incompatible with continued life in reality, while Solstice Wood presents them as warmer, only misunderstood by humanity. In fairness, I’m also amused by the idea of a needlecrafters’ guild dedicated to binding the fairy folk away from humanity with magic spells woven into their quilting and crocheting and knitting and tatting.
Elvenkind in these two books are not the pointy eared hominids out of Tolkien; these are an alien force to be reckoned with and a logic that does not match humanity’s. If you like Little Big or Robin McKinley’s retellings of various fairy tales, you may like these two by McKillip. They share with Little, Big the idea of an alien fairy race so different that they can’t really understand us or we them, The fairy tale setting of McKinley’s books is somewhat similar, though the authors’ use of language is dissimilar; McKinley’s books tend to be more mundane while these two of McKillip’s tend toward the poetically obscure. However, if you like straightforward modern fantasy like A Discovery of Witches, you may not like either of these books. As always I make no guarantees, only suggestions…
The title of this post? It refers to the web site Folksongs are your friends…and yes, Winter Rose has a few of the tropes that Jim MacDonald mentions. Which ones? Read the book and find out…
1no, not even The Riddlemaster of Hed, though I’ll consider trying it again.
2I can’t see Ursula LeGuin using the same style for Tehanu and The Other Wind as for her first three Earthsea novels, say.