THE CHANGELING SEA – Patricia A. McKillip (1988)

The Changeling Sea McKillip

A few days ago, I read that Patricia A. McKillip died on the 6th of May, at the age of 74. I basically dropped what I was reading, and decided to read The Changeling Sea, so I could quickly post a review here as a small hommage.

I felt the need to do so because McKillip’s debut, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, made such an impression on me that I wanted to contribute my bit to keep McKillip’s flame burning.

The Changeling Sea is a short work, only 137 pages, but still a full novel – I wouldn’t call this a novelette as I’ve read here and there.

It’s also classified as young adult, but while some 14-year-olds will probably like this too, it is a very mature work. Rather straightforward and simple on the surface, and as such fairly easy to read, but I would not say this is juvenile, not at all. In that respect, it is not dissimilar to Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. There are other similarities to Le Guin’s masterpiece as well: there’s some magic, and an island setting.

The book is about Periwinkle, a teenage girl who’s lost her fisherman father to the sea – because of that, she has also lost her mother, who has retreated in a numb mourning. Periwinkle doesn’t know the double meaning of her own name: she thinks she is a snail, but she also turns out to be a flower, and The Changeling Sea proves to be a novel of self-discovery. Not a buildingsroman, mind you, Periwinkle’s arc is too short for that. Not only Periwinkle discovers things about herself, but two princes as well, one of them a changeling child – an old fairy motive that McKillip uses, and ties to the sea.

McKillip has said that the sea is “a very mysterious realm. You can’t learn much at all from looking at it, you can only throw a line down and see what comes up on your hook, or throw yourself into it on its own terms and trust that you’ll be able to find your way back. Or you can stand on the shore and imagine what might lie under all that water, which is what people have done for thousands of years. I wanted to put both worlds in the novel: both what we can bring into the light of day, and what we imagine.”

The Changeling Sea is about hidden beauty, about fragile boats, about being determined by nature, about perspective & interdependence, and about intuition.

It’s telling that none of the characters know what they are doing. They all just fumble along, without a plan, without real insight in why they feel certain things or do certain things. It is telling that even the King doesn’t know how he called his lover from the sea. And even the sea queen is powerless to a certain extent, unable to withstand magic from a girl that doesn’t even know she possesses magic. It seems as if McKillip tried to say: do not get distracted by other stuff, just do what’s natural and in front of you.

It is this theme of powerless stumbling that makes this a powerful novel, as an antidote against myths of meritocracy, or novels that call upon responsibility & duty. McKillip shows why being humble is the only realistic option if you want to live a moral life: hubris is always misguided. If you think you really know what you are doing, acting according your very own plans, you are probably delusional.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is without a doubt a better book – richer, deeper, more human in its brutal depiction of love. Speaking of love: it is precisely in its treatment of romance that The Changeling Sea shows it was written with a younger audience in mind too – on the other hand, the romance on display is perfectly in alignment with the themes I described in the previous paragraph.

I will not say any more. Jeroen Admiraal wrote an excellent review already, writing a bit more on the content, and highlighting some other themes.

To compare this with Forgotten Beasts is to set an impossible high bar. The Changeling Sea is wonderful, and wholeheartedly recommended, and I will read more of Patricia A. McKillip in the future.

Patricia A. McKillip 1987

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38 responses to “THE CHANGELING SEA – Patricia A. McKillip (1988)

  1. I’ve got a post coming out this saturday where I mention McKillip’s passing. It’s a sad day in Bookstoogeville 😦

    Liked by 2 people

    • As you are someone who has read about everything she has written, I can imagine you being affected by the news. I’m looking forward to your post, even though the occasion is sad indeed.

      Liked by 2 people

      • This is the first time that I feel affected by an authors passing. Most of the time they’ve stopped writing or i’ve lost interest and so I don’t care about them dying. This definitely wasn’t the case for McKillip 😦

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I have Forgotten Beast of Eld on my TBR thanks to your recommendation – I guess I’ll bump it up. Thanks for this review/homage Bart. R.I.P. McKillip.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. So many people basically my age are leaving us. It makes me so very angry when things waste the time and energy I DO have – because there are things I want to finish.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the link! I thought this was a cute little novel. Nice treatment of magic. I still have a copy of McKillip’s Od Magic lying around somewhere to read, some day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very much agreed on the magic, I maybe should have highlighted that a bit in the review, but then again, it doesn’t play such an important role in the story. I’m not sure what to read next of McKillip, I guess Riddlemaster or Ombria in Shadow, or maybe Forrest of Serre or Atrix Wolfe. Could be I let it depend on what I find first a in physical shop, but I’m pretty sure I won’t find her in any of my regular shops. Maybe warrants a trip to Amsterdam’s ABC.


  5. Isfdb classifies it as a novel and it was nominated in the locus novel awards, so that should settle this.
    As many authors of the pre-1990s, she tends to write extremely dense, very short novels. A Sanderson would take at least two 1200 page volumes to deliver the same plot. I love that denser style, but also know that many people aren’t accustomed to it.
    Let me recommend the Riddlemaster trilogy. I’m just at the last pages of book one, and it’s very similar in style to her first book that you enjoyed so much. Maybe even a touch better.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You description sounded so familiar but I don’t remember reading any McKillip other than the Riddle Master series and the Eld novel. I do want to read more of her work but feel I’m running out of time, especially as I was born the same year as her…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t imagine. I’m 3 decades younger and I already have the feeling I’ll probably never have enough time to read or reread everything I want. I guess Forgotten Beasts of Eld is probably her best book, so I’m not sure you should pursue more of her work – depends on what else is on your TBR.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. McKillip is one of the authors on my “to do” list, and I’m sorry I waited this long despite the many encouraging reviews I read from my fellow bloggers. Now reading her works sounds like the perfect homage to a departed author….
    Thank yo so much for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m a bit late reading this, though I had heard of her passing. I wish I’d been able to read something of hers while she was still around, but at least there is a beautiful back-catalog for me still to explore. One thing this particular book has going for it besides the author is the cover. I’ve always been a big fan of Michael Whelan’s paintings and I just love this one. It really sets a tone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My advice would be to start with the debut. I like this cover, and it fits the book indeed, but I like Kinuko Craft’s covers for some of her books even better.


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