Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

My Rating: 3 stars

Alphabet of Thorn has been on my TBR for years because of the gorgeous cover, and I’ve always heard great things about McKillip. This is the story of an orphaned girl named Nepenthe who works as a scribe. When she starts translating a book no one else is able to understand, it sets into motion events that threaten the existence of the country. I wanted to love it so much, but unfortunately I found myself a bit disappointed. It’s not that it’s a bad book. I actually liked the whole concept. McKillip has created an interesting world with the Floating School, the Twelve Crowns, and the Royal Library. The scenes of Nepenthe in the library were my favorite parts. I also liked to story of Axis and Kane, which probably could have been a whole book unto itself.

The main problem I had was the writing. And it’s not that the writing is bad! McKillip’s writing is actually quite lovely. However, it feels very “high fantasy” in that it holds you at a distance from the events and characters. I couldn’t get lost in the story or feel like I was in the world because the writing style always reminded me that I was just reading about it. It probably works for other people, but it didn’t work for me. It kept me from getting to know the characters and feeling invested in their story.

I also felt there were too many characters. Or at least too many point of view characters. The summary only discussed Nepenthe, so I thought we would follow her the whole time. But we get chapters following several other characters: Bourne, a student at the Floating School; Vevay, a mage and advisor to the queen; Tessera, the newly crowned queen of Raine; and Kane, a figure from history who is the subject of the mysterious book. I don’t mind books that follow multiple characters like this, but this is a fairly short book. Combined with the distance the writing creates between the reader and the characters, I didn’t feel like I truly knew any of them. This made it hard for me to care about their stories and fates.

It could be argued that nothing really happens during the whole book. While there are armies marching at various points, we don’t get to see any of it. We mostly see Nepenthe in the library, sometimes with Bourne, and the politics Vevay and Tessera are dealing with. It’s very slow paced, and there is essentially no action. I found the ending disappointing because, once again, nothing happens. There is no action; it’s all just talking. For a book with so much slow buildup, I like to see it pay off with something dramatic at the ending. And this just didn’t have that.

Overall, Alphabet of Thorn is a slow paced, quiet fantasy. I’m sad that I didn’t enjoy it more because I really did want to love it. Though it didn’t work for me, there are definitely people who will appreciate McKillip’s beautiful writing and worldbuilding.

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