A Magical Smorgasbord: Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher

Pierce Oliver lives in a world that fuses our high-tech present day with the top-down political structure of a high fantasy medieval kingdom. It’s the kind of place where limousine-riding kings preside over jousts, where the court magicians argue over the academic citations and feminist interpretations of their ancient texts, and where the bastard princes are doing well if they manage to stay out of the tabloids. The country’s biggest ongoing problem is keeping its surplus of troublesome knights from taking it into their heads to overthrow the government.

When Pierce is a young man this hardly matters, because he lives in a small town far removed from the capital, a backwater whose existence is known to but a few. His home is in fact concealed by magic, an enchantment wielded by Pierce’s somewhat clingy mother, Heloise, a retired witch living incognito as a slow foods restaurateur. One day three knights stumble through town by accident, and by the time they’ve moved on, Pierce has decided to strike out on his own, seeking information on the father he never knew and–perhaps as importantly–cutting the apron strings that have bound him so tightly to his mother’s chosen refuge.

Packing up his car and charging his cell phone, Pierce heads down the road and almost immediately stumbles into–rather surprisingly–another restaurant, this one in a dilapidated hotel called the Kingfisher, a place that has fallen on hard times. There he encounters Carrie, a hard-working chef who also dreams of escaping her particular Nowheresville of a community. Pierce partakes of a peculiarly ritualistic fish fry there, before spending the night in one of their rooms. On his way out the door, he gives in to an irresistible not-quite-whim to filch a cooking knife from the place.

The theft, of course, is less a failure of moral fiber than a magical imperative, and by the time Pierce makes it to the capital, the effects of his minor act of banditry are reverberating throughout the land. The King has decided to declare a nationwide quest for… well, definitely for something. A grail? A relic? A fountain of youth? Whatever the Object in question is, his upstart knights will surely know it when they see it. In the meantime, if their motoring forth and scouring the kingdom keeps them from getting up to revolutionary scale trouble, so much the better.

The problem with this scheme is it isn’t entirely a PR scam. The quest Object is real enough, and the mere idea of seeking it sets off a feud between two major religions, a fight that breaks down more or less on gender lines: there’s a cult  with masculine, metal-dominated values and a male god, and a watery, priestess-led faith centered in the ladies’ birthing chamber. Both sides are absolutely, positively sure that the quest’s Object belongs to their patron deity. And for at least some of the men and women on the hunt, this ambiguity is awesome, simply because it means they have a license to stampede around the whole countryside, kicking over lesser shrines, sifting through their relics, and beating on anyone who might object.

Carrie and Pierce have other problems too, in the form of a third restaurant owner, a slippery figure called Stillwater who is almost certainly in the know about whatever it is that has blighted the Kingfisher Inn. Now he has his sights set on Carrie herself, and is tempting her with job offers she definitely ought to refuse.

Patricia McKillip’s Kingfisher is a beautifully inventive novel, one that is genuinely effective in combining a world with medieval pageantry and honor-driven knights on the quest with the age of haute-cuisine trends, celebrity chefs, and the selfie. The idea of folding modern foodie culture into this story is inspired, as is everything about Stillwater’s restaurant. So cursed! So cool! So many fantasy novels feature the lowly kitchen waif as part of their stories at one point or another. A book that is all about cooking and cooks meshes with that in witty and surprising ways. Cooking TV fans and readers who are foodies will love this playful approach.

The novel has a lot of players, from cooks and bastards and dotty, ancient aunts to enchanted princes, scholars, and priestesses. It has shapeshifters, evil chefs, and bands of knights who act rather like rampaging motorcycle gangs. The trade-off for having all of these people and storylines is that few of the characters really comes in for much examination. They’re all appealing, like a box full of adorable puppies, and as such it’s hard to choose between them. They are sharing an extremely crowded stage.

The tangled storylines do resolve themselves: as in many of McKillip’s books, the stolen knife, the mystery Quest, the cursed Kingfisher Inn and all the seekers collide in a powerful magical encounter that comes together almost seamlessly. This realigns the kingdom and transforms the various characters’ lives. It gives a sense of magic as destiny, a current of fate bringing all the players into the right place at the right time–regardless of their intentions. Even so, the resolution to all Kingfisher’s quandaries and curses does lend a sense of closure to the tale.

Charmingly written and with a thoroughly unique setting, Kingfisher scratches the surface of a world worthy of much deeper exploration. In this sense, it is more of an appetizer than a meal, the sort of pleasing beginning that will leave readers hoping that Carrie or Pierce (or someone, anyway) will pack up the chef’s knives, charge the GPS app, and take to the road in some kind of follow-up.

Kingfisher is available now from Penguin Books.

A.M. Dellamonica‘s newest book is called A Daughter of No Nationand you can read the first chapter here! She has a book’s worth of fiction up here on Tor.com, including the time travel horror story “The Color of Paradox.” There’s also “The Glass Galago,” the third of a series of stories called The Gales. This story and its predecessors, “Among the Silvering Herd” and “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” are prequels to this newest novel and its predecessor, Child of a Hidden Sea. If sailing ships, pirates, magic and international intrigue aren’t your thing, though, her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Or check out her sexy novelette, “Wild Things,” a tie-in to the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

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