Wonders of the Invisible World is a collection of previously published short stories by Patricia A. McKillip. McKillip is perhaps best known for her Riddle-Master trilogy or her World Fantasy Award winner, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, but she has many well-known works. She has been a published writer for about 40 years, and she has released numerous novels and short stories since then. This recently released collection of her work contains an introduction by Charles de Lint, sixteen stories by McKillip from various publications, and McKillip’s Guest of Honor speech from WisCon 2004 entitled “What Inspires Me.”
The stories included in Wonders of the Invisible World are as follows:
- Wonders of the Invisible World
- Out of the Woods
- The Kelpie
- Hunter’s Moon
- Oak Hill
- The Fortune-Teller
- Jack O’Lantern
- Knight of the Well
- Naming Day
- The Twelve Dancing Princesses
- Xmas Cruise
- A Gift To Be Simple
- The Old Woman and the Storm
- The Doorkeeper of Khaat
Most of these stories are fantasy, but there are some science fiction stories as well.
Confession time: Wonders of the Invisible World was my first experience reading the work of Patricia A. McKillip despite being such a huge fan of the fantasy genre. I actually read it quite by accident since I had intended to start with one of her novels. While I like the idea of short fiction, I often find myself unable to really immerse myself in it since I tend to enjoy stories that are long enough to allow one to get to know the characters. It’s very rare that I make it through a short story collection, especially if I don’t take a break between stories.
Yet not only did I read this collection in its entirety, but I read it without having the urge to take a break from it. I took a glimpse at the beginning to get an idea of what McKillip’s writing style was like and figured I may as well start with the introduction. The brief but heartfelt introduction by Charles de Lint made me want to read everything McKillip had ever written, so I took a look at the first story. I finished it, and then moved on to the next story. By the time I was immersed in the third story I was convinced by McKillip’s writing itself that I want to read everything she has ever written. She is one of those authors who has the gift of saying much with few words, and her stories sparkle because of her lovely but spare prose, her characters (who are often quite developed despite the short length of the pages that contain them), and her depth and insight. She tackles some heavy themes such as gender, death, and the stagnation that can result from longheld traditions and resistance to change. It’s not all serious, though, and there are parts with warmth and humor, as well as light-hearted stories. McKillip’s range is impressive and her stories a joy to read.
It’s impossible for me to pick a single favorite story from this collection since there are three that compete for that title. “The Kelpie,” one of the longer and more complex stories in the collection, is a love story that intertwines fantasy and myth while exploring artistic and feminist themes. It also has some of the most memorable characters in the entire collection in Nick and Emma, the two who meet and fall for each other at a gathering of artists. Emma captures the attention of both Nick Bonham and the handsome Bram Wilding at this event. When she is pursued by Mr. Wilding, Emma shows him some of her paintings only to be told they could be a lot better. As she tells her brother in the company of Nick later, he told her that “most women painters should confine themselves to watercolors, since they have not the breadth of soul to express the fullness and complexity of oils, though he had seen one or two come close enough to counterfeit it.” It is during this conversation that Nick manages to capture Emma’s heart:
“What are your thoughts on the breadth of a woman’s soul, Mr. Bonham?”
“I think,” he said fervently, “I could travel a lifetime in one and never see the half of it.”
She regarded him silently for a heartbeat, out of eyes the color of a fine summer day, and in that moment he caught his first astonished glimpse of the undiscovered country that was theirs.
The story is about their developing relationship as well as Mr. Wilding’s obsession with Emma that invades her life, and it also manages to bring in the struggle of a group of female artists to get their work taken seriously. Of course, there is an incident with the titular kelpie that is quite a pivotal moment. “The Kelpie” is both an engrossing and intricate story dealing with deep themes, and I felt it was also the most emotionally involving story of all. (After writing about this one, perhaps I can pick a very favorite story, but I liked the other two stories mentioned almost as much even though they are very different from “The Kelpie”!)
“Naming Day” was a more light-hearted story in which an adolescent girl learns an important lesson through an amusing situation. As a serious student of magic at the top of her class, Averil is too busy with her studies and her imminent Naming Day to listen to her mother when she says she needs help with her four-year-old brother. When a witch casts a spell on Averil on Naming Day, she has to go on a quest to remove the spell – and learns about what is truly important in the process. This may sound trite, but it’s a very well-done story with warmth and humor that keeps it from seeming like a life lesson or an after school special. By the end, Averil is not the same person she was at the start and she undergoes this development over the course of a very fun story.
The final of my three favorites is a fairy tale about a soldier, Val, who could become king titled “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” On his way back from the war, Val learns of a king who has offered his kingdom and one daughter to any man who can discover how his daughters escape their locked room every night. Every morning, they are so worn they sleep until noon, and the only trace of their adventure is their twelve pairs of shoes, so worn from dancing that they are no longer wearable. However, any man who tries to solve this mystery of the dancing princesses and fails will be killed. It’s largely a traditional fairy tale with its premise, the involvement of a mysterious crone, and the way it follows the rule of three. It’s creepy at times, and it also has some beautiful imagery:
They turned then onto another broad, tree-lined road. Val closed his eyes and opened them again, but what he saw did not change. All the leaves on these trees were made of gold. Like tears of gold they glowed and shimmered and melted down the branches; they flowed into Val’s outstretched hand.
I also appreciated how war was handled in this tale. It’s not a story that repeatedly dwells on war or violence, but it gives a brief glimpse of what Val experienced in a way that is both simple and effective:
“What is your name?”
“Val,” he answered.
“A good name for a soldier. Did you win the battle?”
Val shrugged. “So they say. I could not see, from where I stood, that winning was much better than losing.”
As with all short story collections, some stories were better than others. The three just discussed are my very favorites and stories I consider nearly perfect, but there are other stories I loved as well such as “Byndley” and “Knight of the Well.” In fact, many of these stories are quite lovely, and even if I didn’t love every one of them I could appreciate most of them on some level. For example, “Undine” was not one of my favorites but it was memorable because it was a somewhat humorous story about a young undine who tried to ensnare her first man – only to have the tables turned on her in an amusing way. There was only one story that fell completely flat for me, “Xmas Cruise.” This story explored the relationships of two couples who met on a cruise during Christmas vacation, but I found it to be rather dull. However, if there’s only one story in a collection containing sixteen that did nothing at all for me, I think that’s doing very well!
Wonders of the Invisible World is a wonderful collection of stories full of wit and insight wrapped in beautiful, effortless prose. McKillip’s ability to convey so much in so few words is impressive, as is her ability with storytelling, characterization, and thematic elements. I now see why she is such a lauded author in the fantasy genre, and I’m glad to have so many other books written by her left to discover.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.