I only discovered Patricia McKillip about three years ago. Of course, I’d heard of her long before then—she has won the World Fantasy Award and been nominated for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, after all!—but I hadn’t actually read anything by her even though she’d been on my mental list of “authors to read someday” for quite awhile at that point. She might still be on that list had I not leafed through an ARC of Wonders of the Invisible World that showed up in my mailbox one day. I just meant to sample the writing since I often have a tough time reading short stories, but I was so enchanted by her spare but lovely prose, characters, and insight that I read it cover to cover—and then decided I simply must read all her books!
The Changeling Sea, a Mythopoeic Award nominee first published in 1988, is a perfect example of why I wanted to read all of Patricia McKillip’s books in the first place. This slim stand alone fantasy (less than 150 pages!) is lovely and just the right length for the story it tells: the tale of Peri, an islander who despises, curses, and then falls in love with the sea.
Ever since Peri’s father’s boat returned to shore without him, Peri’s mother has been lost to her as well, largely neglectful of the world around her as she gazes at the sea. Though Peri occasionally visits when she’s not working at the inn, she’s been residing by herself in an abandoned home. The old woman who used to live there vanished one day, but before she left she taught Peri some enchantments. These spells never seemed particularly effective, but Peri plans to hex the sea anyway—and when the prince, Kir, comes searching for the old woman, Peri tells him she intends to do so. Kir requests that she send the sea a message from him and gives her some items belonging to the king. One afternoon, she ties them into her hexes, casts them into the sea, and screams at the sea.
“I hex you,” she shouted, searching for words as bitter as brine to cast back at the sea. “I hate you, I curse you, I lay a hex on you, Sea, so that all your spellbindings will unravel, and all your magic is confused, and so that you never again take anything or anyone that belongs to us, and you let go of whatever you have—” [pp. 19]
At first, nothing happens, but then a sea dragon with a giant gold chain around its neck rises out of the sea. Soon Peri’s village is thrown into chaos as fishers plot to acquire this gold for themselves, visitors arrive dreaming of these riches, and the sea sends some messages of its own. Peri’s quiet life is also upended when she promises to help Kir find a path into the sea where he knows he belongs. In the process, she learns the truth about the king’s past and the identity of the sea dragon—and falls in love with Kir, though she’s vowed to help him become lost to her forever.
The Changeling Sea is every bit as enchanting as the sea that mesmerized some of its characters. I was captivated from the very first page, and I found myself rereading sections often and absorbing every word before moving on—and after I reached the end, I knew this was a keeper that I was likely to reread again someday. It’s beautifully written, achieving just the right balance between too much description and too little. Though not a fast-paced book, it’s never dull and it’s so vividly drawn that each scene is easy to envision. The end is more sweet than bitter, but there is some sadness that makes it seem as though happiness is earned rather than too easily and tidily accomplished.
Peri is a wonderful heroine who unknowingly has a huge affect on her world. At the beginning of the book she has a rather simple, quiet life aside from her anger at the sea. She’s a fisher’s daughter who cleans at the village inn, and the other villagers do not suspect that this unkempt girl whose hair looks as though “she had stood on her head and used it for a mop” (pp. 2) is right in the middle of the strange events happening in their midst. Yet she knows more about their prince, king, and the mysterious sea dragon that appeared one day than any of them, and it’s Peri who teaches two trapped between the earth and sea about being human. She discovers she has a greater gift than she or anyone around her ever realized, and I especially loved the scene in which she finally saw the influence she had.
At its heart, this is a tale of legendary proportions, and it’s also largely about love and loss. I especially enjoyed that it incorporated so much of ordinary life into such a mythic story. Though Peri spends her nights speaking with royalty, she spends her days working at the inn. Early in the book, much of the conversation she hears there is focused on gossip about the prince, but later it turns to the sea dragon and how to profit from its gigantic chain of gold. Even then, it still seems like such down-to-earth ordinary chatter with arguments abounding: how to get this chain, who created this chain, and whether or not its actually worth the risk of taking it from whoever created such a large chain for such a large creature.
The Changeling Sea is a rare gem: a book that I loved from beginning to end. It’s deceptively simple on the surface but has depth, and that’s part of what makes it so memorable—along with the lovely writing, Peri herself, and its themes of love, loss, and humanity wrapped in a legendary tale. I don’t feel that anything I say can do this magical book justice, but it’s a new favorite book and yet another reason to read more written by Patricia McKillip.
My Rating: 10/10
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.
This book is January’s selection from a poll on Patreon.