Patricia McKillip – Wonders of the Invisible World

Another review from Interzone in 2012

Wonders of the Invisible World

Patricia A. McKillip, Tachyon Publications, 288pp, pb

In her Guest of Honour speech at Wiscon 2004 ( the only previously unpublished item in this collection), Patricia McKillip tells a story about the mossy patch on her back lawn that concealed a cesspool. It is a convenient if unwitting metaphor for the stories in this collection. Superficially, they are lyrical, beautiful, opulent even, but they often conceal a harsher truth. The difficulty lies in determining whether the outer wrapping is an attempt to soften that truth or is intended as a lure, forcing the reader to confront the unpalatable.

The duality of McKillip’s stories is made most explicit in ‘Out of the Woods’ (2004) in which Leta, at her husband’s suggestion, goes to work for Ansley, an aspiring magician. Dylan’s arguments are familiar: more money means greater comfort but if the couple rarely see one another, if Leta in fact works twice as hard, for two men who mostly ignore her, what is the point? McKillip’s story is a deft interrogation of the dreams that supposedly nourish young women –the promise of a handsome prince, the prospect of real power – and Leta constantly finds herself poised on the edge of others’ stories but her eventual decision is as unsurprising as it is inevitable. ‘The Kelpie’ (2005) and ‘The Knight of the Well’ (2012) touch on similar issues, though in these cases the heroines’ choices are more clear-cut and follow a more obviously romantic path, while ‘Jack O’Lantern’ (2006) makes a more overt criticism of the roles often assigned to women in fantasy.

Other stories map a more familiar fantastical territory, though the fact that most have apparently been written for themed anthologies perhaps contributes to a feeling of sameness in tone and, perhaps bizarrely, subject matter. More than one story seems to teeter on the edge of outright sentimentality though McKillip’s authorial restraint invariably prevails at just the right moment. One or two stories are less successful; whatever Charles de Lint’s introduction might suggest, McKillip seems ill at ease when using contemporary or overtly science-fictional settings, though ‘Xmas Cruise’ (1993), one of the earliest stories in the collection, suggests that had circumstances been otherwise, McKillip might have been a very different writer, perhaps more in the vein of someone like Carol Emshwiller.

On the other hand, de Lint is correct in using the word ‘gentle’ when discussing McKillip’s work. McKillip is an excellent craftswoman; her stories are carefully constructed and highly polished. To read one is to be briefly drawn into a tiny, intricate world. However, to read several without sufficient pause between each is to realise that while McKillip might quietly subvert fantasy tropes, especially in more recent stories, she rarely tests fantasy’s boundaries, at least not in short form. Enjoyable as individual stories are, as impressive as the craft is, to read this collection is to sink into a deep pile of velvet cushions that threaten to smother one entirely.