It had been years--or should I say decades--since I read this trilogy, so when I found it reissued in a single volume, I had to buy up. My fond memories of the book were not disappointed, and it still reads as freshly now as it did during the late seventies. Then, when fantasy still remained dominated by Tolkien, or in the hands of overly prolific imitators, two authors stood out, both for the freshness of their approach and their skill of writing: Stephen Donaldson and Patricia McKillip. It's fitting, in the author's acknowledgements, to see their names still linked.
As the author hints in her introduction, this trilogy lacks the maturity of her later works, such as "The Book of Atrix Wolfe," "Winter Rose," or the recent "Song for the Basilisk." Yet all the elements are evident that have contributed to making Patricia McKillip one of the finest authors writing fantasy fiction today: beautiful, at times lyrical, prose, imaginative and original themes and characters, and a wondrous sense of the magical that infuses both her world and story throughout. Each world she creates is unique and thoughtfully rendered, with elements designed to provoke both thought and wonder, and her characters are some of the most striking found in fantasy fiction--no small accomplishment indeed!
While I understand the exuberance behind some earlier reviewers' comments--this work is special and deserving of wide readership--some of the praise here goes overboard. Compared to the second two books, "The Riddle-Master of Hed" is a rough cut, both in conception and in terms of its writing. It lacks the assurance of the later two books, and, despite some marvelous passages, such as the book's opening and the story of Peven, at times rambles and exhibits writing in need of further polish and greater concision. Essential for establishing much of the basis for the rest of the trilogy, and containing many marvelous episodes and characters, it nonetheless displays the lack of focus and more assured writing skills evident in the following two books, and for this reason prevents me from according it full marks. And, this early trilogy is certainly not up to the standard of the author's later and more mature work.
That said, I nonetheless consider this a classic of the genre, far more imaginatively written than scores of other work currently lining retailer's shelves. Further, it is written with a style that sets the author apart from almost all other wordsmiths presently practicing the genre, a beauty of voice that makes her tales compelling and unique. And while I am dubious of the many comparisons to Tolkien, there is a sense and tone of wonder echoing throughout this story that I have never found elsewhere except in Tolkien's work. I cannot recommend this book more highly.