This book (two books, actually) holds a wistful joy for me. The two stories woven within are pure McKillip at her best: lyrical, mystical, with down-to-earth protagonists and a way of bringing the eldritch in for tea.
I encountered the first book in 1992 at a World Fantasy Convention, and the second in the summer of 1995.
I can even narrow down the time: I was re-reading it while doing this needlepoint (inspired by both books), at the big splashy grand opening for an electronics store that is now Fry’s Electronics (the boring one in Tempe, not the MesoAmerican fantasy in North Phoenix, now famous from Mr. Robot.)
Even more than McKillip’s earlier Forgotten Beasts of Eld or her Riddlemaster trilogy, these two books probably pushed my writing in a certain direction.
Not that I will ever come close to these.
But if you haven’t read Cygnet, or any McKillip, this book is a damn good place to start.
What is the duology about?
‘The Sorceress and the Cygnet’ begins with Corleu, white-haired son of the dark, wandering Wayfolk. His people travel from land to land with the changing seasons, hiring for farm work and craftwork. But on one autumn journey to the warmer southern Delta, the Wayfolk are led astray by a clever, magical enemy…into a blissfully beautiful, evergreen, ever-warm, neverending version of the Delta lowlands and swamps.
All but Corleu, who inherited more than white hair from his unknown non-Wayfarer grandfather. Corleu, immune to the sorcery, is offered a way to free the Wayfarers: betray the hidden Sentinel that has protected all the lands from the chaotic magical beings he accidentally awakened.
‘The Cygnet and the Firebird’ weaves a story of the sorceress Nyx Ro, who helped Corleu free his people and re-imprison his adversaries. Dragged by Corleu from her weird swamp mansion, Nyx now bickers with her less-magical but more level-headed siblings, avoids enamored lordlings and the responsibilities of being a princess, and learns the secrets of a magical castle that can teleport wherever her mother wants.
Until a wounded firebird appears in front of her…and a brief moment, is a young man warning Nyx of a new threat. A tyrant sorcerer has discovered old magical pathways through time and space, and prepares his conquering armies to overwhelm Nyx’s people. But doors go both ways, so Nyx and her cousin Meguet follow the firebird home.
Why do I love these books? The writing is gorgeous, without some of the unfocused ornament of later McKillip works (which I never mind, but your mileage may vary).
The two women are heroes, without being the new ‘strong woman’ stereotype of one-dimensional badass, and sympathetically portrayed as they pit themselves against a new world and new enemies. Their male love interests are equally well-crafted: strong, determined, both loyal and secretive, they’re a perfect antidote to the toxic masculinity touted by alt-right fantasists of today.
McKillip set this story up with a wistful ending: Meguet chooses one old love while refusing a new one, and Nyx’s firebird prince is pulled back to his realm with his father’s defeat. There is the possibility of a sequel, but it looks like McKillip may have set it aside. Similar themes pop up in her 2004 book ‘Alphabet of Thorn’.