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Literature / The Riddle Master Trilogy

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The Riddle-Master Trilogy is a High Fantasy trilogy by Patricia A. McKillip with a Morality Kitchen Sink. The novels in the trilogy are:

  1. The Riddle-Master of Hed
  2. Heir of Sea and Fire
  3. Harpist in the Wind

The third novel, Harpist in the Wind, was nominated for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award, and the series remains one of McKillip's most popular works. Several Omnibus editions have been produced under various names, including Riddle of Stars, Quest of Riddlemasters, and The Riddlemaster's Game.

The series takes place in a world where all wisdom is couched in the form of riddles to be solved. The land is divided into kingdoms whose rulers are magically linked to their realms. This "land-rule" is governed by a mysterious figure known as the High One.

Morgon was a student before his parents died and he became the land-ruler of Hed. He was born with a birth mark of three stars on his forehead which are the subject of prophecy, although he tries to ignore that. When the High One's harpist, Deth, comes to visit during his travels, he informs Morgon that Raederle of An's hand in marriage was promised to whomever could defeat Peven of Aum in a riddle game and that An has been in an uproar ever since Peven told the last person to challenge him that he was too late. Morgon admits that he won Peven's crown in a riddle game and resolves to go with Deth to visit Raederle and offer himself in marriage.

Before they can get very far, their ship is attacked by shape-changers who are determined to kill The Starbearer aka Morgon. For his very life, Morgon travels with Deth to the High One on Erlenstar Mountain in search of an answer to the riddle of three stars.

The second book follows Raederle of An, Lyra of Herun, and Morgon's sister Tristan as they search for Morgon, Deth, and the High One, who are all now considered missing ever since Morgon reached the High One and fell out of all contact. The third book deals with the growing war against the shape-changers and the continuing search for the truth about the High One.

These novels provide examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: While most names are a bit strange, they still range from the relatively-normal Tristan and Morgon to Ghisteslwchlohm. Of course, there's some cultural differences at work here; Tristan and Morgon are both from Hed, which has the most "normal" names, and while Ghisteslwchlohm's origins are never explained, it's speculated that he's from Herun, where Overly Long Names are the norm.
  • Double Reverse Quadruple Agent: Deth: Pretends to be working for the High One, despite actually being the High One himself and working under deep cover for his impersonator, so that he can mentor his successor into success, which requires betraying said successor to the man unknowingly impersonating himself (aka the High One), and faking his own death to impersonate a wizard who was never in fact a wizard but was always him. (Deth why.)
  • Genocide from the Inside: Although the Earth Masters are technically not dead, the High One drove all the others into the sea and bound them forever. He is also, debatably, a rare heroic example, in that it appears he crushed the others and forced them into the sea when they started to destroy their own children and it became clear that their war was going to destroy everything if he didn't.
  • His Name Is...: Technically inverted, but similar in principle - when Morgon convinces the wizard Suth to tell him why he has been hiding in vesta form for seven hundred years, Suth manages to say nothing except a name before he's struck dead by magic: Ohm.
  • Immortal Ruler: Har the "wolf-king", land ruler of Osterland, is a powerful and unaging mage who loves the wild regions and creatures of his land almost as much as its people. In addition, the High One, from whom all the land rulers draw their powers (literally), is older still than even Har, though he's not much into direct ruling.
  • Make Me Wanna Shout: When people are emotional, they can give Great Shouts capable of shattering stone. It doesn't seem like something they can weaponize so much as a type of Power Incontinence, since nobody is ever shown doing it deliberately.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: Morality ranges from Actual Pacifist Morgon though even he spends most of the second book hunting someone down with express intent to kill them, pragmatic but still very good-aligned Raederle, very grey Deth, whose actions verge on Necessarily Evil sometimes but whose intentions are good, pretty damn awful Ghistelwhchlohm, who is the type to Mind Rape someone for a year to get a piece of information, and the shape-changers, who verge on Blue-and-Orange Morality.
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: We hear a lot about Morgon finally managing to turn Ghisteslwchlohm's power against him and escape; unfortunately, it's all either secondhand or long after the fact.
  • Out of Focus: Morgon is the main character of the first book; in the second, he barely appears, and Raederle is the focus character instead. The third book splits the focus between them.
  • Overly Long Name: A Herun tradition, apparently, which is why they all go by shortened versions of their names - e.g. Elrhiarhodan and her daughter Lyraluthuin are El and Lyra to their friends
  • Punny Name: Deth. It's actually short for Tirunedeth, but he is fully cognizant of the pun's potential. It has a second layer when you meet his dead son Tirnon, who reveals that his father's name was originally Tir.
  • Standard Hero Reward: Lampshaded. When Morgon finds out that a king swore his daughter to anyone who could win a contest he'd just won, he asks how anyone could be so stupid as to make such a promise. Luckily, there was already some attraction between the two (and it's implied that the king had some ability to see the future and foresee this outcome.)
  • The Unpronounceable: One of the wizards is actually called "Iff of the Unpronouncable Name"; it turns out his full name has to be sung, not spoken, and even then it took a while to work out the tune.
  • Was It All a Lie?: A question asked by basically everyone who ever interacted with Deth, after the news that he betrayed Morgon begins to circulate. In particular, his answer is played both ways with his relationship with El; while still needing to maintain his cover with Ghisteslwchlohm, Deth callously implies it was all a lie, but when reporting this to El, Morgon describes Deth's actions From a Certain Point of View to tell her Deth actually loved her. This kindness is what ultimately breaks Deth and reveals that it was never a lie to begin with.
  • Wham Line: At least one per book (with several in the third), but the most obvious is at the very end of the first book, when Morgon's mentor, Ohm, reveals that he's simultaneously the Big Bad, Ghisteslwchlohm, and what people thought was the Big Good, the High One:
    "I am Ghisteslwchlohm, the Founder of Lungold, and—as you have guessed—its destroyer. I am the High One."
  • Wizards Live Longer: All the wizards are centuries old at least; it's implied that they do die of old age eventually, but exactly how long they last isn't specified. This also holds true for some other magic-users who aren't wizards, like the more powerful land rulers; Har is roughly two thousand years old, and Danan Isig may be even older.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Played with, in that Raederle is officially the second most beautiful woman "in all the Three Portions of An."
  • Zero-Approval Gambit Deth aka The High One. Also Mathom of An who outrages his lords and his heir by leaving An to search - or so he says - for Morgon, thus allowing the bindings on the ancient and hostile ghosts he holds in check to loosen. He is successful; An arms itself remarkably quickly for war as a result.

Alternative Title(s): The Riddle Master Of Hed, Heir Of Sea And Fire, Harpist In The Wind, Riddle Of Stars