Two of Patricia McKillip's most lyrical books are the Cygnet duology, the story of a sorcerous family and the mysterious forces that shape their world. "Cygnet" compiles those books, bringing together the intoxicating mixture of unique magic, invisible dragons, and McKillip's shimmering prose.
"The Sorceress and the Cygnet" introduces us to Corleu, one of the Wayfolk (sort of like gypsies), but with a head of white hair and a strange love of legend. When the Wayfolk become ensnared in a magical trap, Corleu finds his way out, and encounters the mysterious sorceress Nyx, living in the middle of a swamp.
But the Wayfolk aren't the only ones in danger -- the ancient castle of Ro Holding is being haunted by strange godlike beings -- foxes, tinkers, a blind woman -- who seem to have stepped out of ancient legend. To free the Wayfolk, Corleu must unrael the secrets of these beings, and of the mysterious Cygnet.
"The Cygnet and the Firebird" is a sort of McKillipesque version of "Swan Lake." Ro Holding is invaded by two magical forces: a mage who kidnaps magical warrior Meguet Vervaine, and whisks her away to a strange desert, and a young prince enchanted into a firebird's form, whose song can transform objects and people, and who only turns back to himself at moonrise.
Turns out that the mage and the young man-bird are connected, and that the prince cannot remember exactly how he became this way. Now Nyx stretches out her powers to the Luxor Desert, where strange magics and invisible dragons are all over, and Meguet uncovers hidden secrets...
McKillip has never specialized in easy, cliched fantasy -- you know, the cheap stuff with lots of flashy wizards, D&D warriors and sadistic warlords. Her brand of fantasy is more subtle and magical, usually filled with eerie, glimmering conflicts that are of one kind of magic against another.
Like J.R.R. Tolkien, McKillip's writing is all wrapped up in nature's beauty, wind and roses and jeweled trees, as well as the majesty of deserts and forests. And she definitely brings odd scenes to life, such as Corleu's escape from the trap, or Ro Holding being moved from one place to another. It's a bit like being locked inside a beautiful, ivy-covered dream.
And the characters are similarly nonstereotypical, from the dreamy gypsy to the pensive warrior-woman, the enigmatic matriarch to the oddball sorceress. But even better, McKillip gets inside their heads and presents their feelings -- loneliness, love, sorrow and wonderment at the world -- with as much power as if they were all real people.
"Cygnet" brings together two elusive, beautiful fantasy stories, and they're even better when both halves of Ro Holding's story are brought together. Definitely a great read.