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The Riddle-Master of Hed (Riddle-Master, #1)
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Book Discussions > The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip

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This is our discussion of the classic fantasy novel...

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Riddle-Master, #1) by Patricia A. McKillip The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip
(1976)


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Non-spoiler observation 1...

These are not riddles like I think of riddles (e.g. "Voiceless it cries, / Wingless flutters, / Toothless bites, / Mouthless mutters.") These are just Questions. (e.g. "What have I got in my pocket?") They have both an answer and a thoughtful moral ("strictures") (e.g., "Never turn your back on a deranged river hobbit").

Except for the riddles no-one has answered yet, like "What is the sound of one claw clapping?"


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Andrea | 2524 comments G33z3r wrote: "Non-spoiler observation 1...

These are not riddles like I think of riddles (e.g. "Voiceless it cries, / Wingless flutters, / Toothless bites, / Mouthless mutters.") These are just Questions. (e.g...."


Exactly! A riddle is something you should be able to figure out from the riddle itself. But the "riddles" in this book are trivia questions where you either know the answer or not (plus the moral of the story). More Alex Trebec, less Sphinx.

It doesn't mean you're good at figuring things out, a Riddle-Master is just someone that memorized an encyclopedia of the history of the world. So I wasn't much impressed by that.

And the "magic" behind opening some books is just guessing someone's password. I know when the book was written we weren't using our girlfriend's pet name as our internet passwords but it's kind of funny to read it now to see the same thing applied in a magical context.

On the positive, I am getting into the "mystery" (not "riddle") of the stars on our protagonist's forehead. In fact I found it strange that those stars weren't really pointed out early on, but rather just in passing. At first I didn't even think the reference was literal till I looked at the cover of my book :)


message 4: by Rosemary (new) - added it

Rosemary | 65 comments Still reading this one, but I am up to Chapter 8 (of 10). I think I will be going on to read the others in this trilogy. Yes, the riddles are really trivia questions. I liked that the riddle masters get different colored robes to indicate mastery, kind of like the different colored karate belts.


message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

Andrea wrote: "More Alex Trebec, less Sphinx...."

I'll take magical harps for $500.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Rosemary wrote: "Still reading this one, but I am up to Chapter 8 (of 10). ..."

Mine has an 11. (ooo, bonus Spinal Tap reference for extra points! :)


message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

Non-spoiler observation 2... names.

a. No one should write a book with characters named Morgon and Morgol.

b. No one should name characters "An" or "Re". You ever search an ebook for "An" ?

c. "Ghisteslwchlohm", "Dhairrhuwyth"... etc. Seriously? (Pronounced exactly as written, I suppose?)


message 8: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2172 comments That's a good comparison to Jeopardy for the riddles. I agree completely with the observation about the passwords too, but I think that one sat a lot better with me before I got into computers. We're all a lot more sophisticated about that kind of security than we were back when this was written.

I liked the idea of peaceful farmers, but it's overdone. No, they're not into war, but bacon doesn't grow peacefully in a field. Slaughtering a hog & using it up was a day long endeavor when I was a kid. (Actually, we'd do several & pool labor & various devices like sausage stuffers.)


message 9: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 02, 2019 08:57AM) (new)

Jim wrote: "I liked the idea of peaceful farmers, but it's overdone. No, they're not into war, but bacon doesn't grow peacefully in a field...."

I think there's a big difference between killing a man and killing a farm animal. Being a pacifist doesn't make you a vegetarian.

One of Morgon's more thoughtful quotes, “If you take a man’s life, he has nothing. You can strip him of his land, his rank, his thoughts, his name, but if you take his life, he has nothing. Not even hope.”

Several moments in this book reminded me of movie scenes. This reminded me of Eastwood's Unforgiven's more compact: “It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have.”


message 10: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2172 comments G33z3r wrote: "I think there's a big difference between killing a man and killing a farm animal. ..."

A difference, but I'm not sure it's that big. I guess a lot has to do with personal philosophies on whether or not animals can think, have emotions, or even souls, if you believe in them. Perhaps it comes down to how big a difference a person feels there is between a human & an animal.

While some animals are raised with the idea of killing & eating them, it's still pretty tough to look into a deer's eyes & finish it off. Or kill a lamb. If everything doesn't go right, the cries, struggles, & blood can be ugly & heart-wrenching. Even killing off predators like coons can be tough. The ones that tend to get into the most trouble are the youngsters just making their way on their own. Of course, they'd eat your hand if given half a chance, but they still look cute.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments I read this some time ago so won't comment on detail. I would happily re-read the series if I had time.
One aspect I enjoyed was that the different rulers of the separate lands, are each an embodiment of their kingdom. You may not see many of them in the first book.


message 12: by Andrea (new) - added it

Andrea | 2524 comments G33z3r wrote: "Non-spoiler observation 2... names.

a. No one should write a book with characters named Morgon and Morgol.

b. No one should name characters "An" or "Re". You ever search an ebook for "An" ?

c. ..."


Especially when your edition occasionally has the typo Morgan in place of Morgon.

"Ghisteslwchlohm" - this one made my brain hurt, I can see why he goes around calling himself Ohm now. Probably fed up with people messing up his name all the time.

Deth is pretty funny too, but that was intentional.


message 13: by Andrea (new) - added it

Andrea | 2524 comments Jim wrote: "G33z3r wrote: "I think there's a big difference between killing a man and killing a farm animal. ..."

A difference, but I'm not sure it's that big. I guess a lot has to do with personal philosophi..."


I once hurt my cat trying to cut out a giant knot in his fur, it bothered me for days that I made him bleed, still bothers me now. But I'm happy to squish a bug any time. I also used to fish with my grandfather and while he was the one that did the act of whacking the fish on a rock to kill it, I didn't mind watching. Depends on the animal and one's feelings towards it indeed.

Now obviously I don't view my pet cats as potential food, but I'm pretty sure I'd freak out if I chopped a head of a chicken and it flopped around before it died, or listened to a pig squeal as you slit it's throat. As you can tell, meat for me comes pre-packaged from a supermarket :)

But if I really needed food, I would kill the animal. I think it would still be a stretch to kill a person though. Otherwise farmers the world over throughout history would kill wantonly?


message 14: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2172 comments Andrea wrote: "Jim wrote: "...But if I really needed food, I would kill the animal. I think it would still be a stretch to kill a person though. Otherwise farmers the world over throughout history would kill wantonly? "

That's what bugs me about Morgon's reactions. He's NOT killing wantonly, but in defense. He's had to have killed before for food & in defense of the domestic animals. You can't have chickens without something trying to eat them on a regular basis. There's also old & injured animals that need to be put down. IMO, it's something a person works out in their head when growing up on a farm & dealing with on a fairly regular basis. I never liked the killing, but I did like eating & hated to see an animal suffer, so it is part of the process - daily life. It has to be done, so needful death becomes something a person has to learn to handle.

To my mind, that means killing in self defense goes into the category of needful & is handled in pretty much the same way. It might be worse, but the things attacking him had shown they didn't value life. They'd killed others & possibly weren't even human. The last fact would kick in all the insular tribalistic tendencies of his island & conservative farmer character on top of the rest, so it should have been much easier for him. Sure, he's studied abroad, but that's a pretty thin layer on top of the rest, IMO.

Anyway, it was just an inconsistency in characterization that bugged me a fair amount. Not the end of the world, just took it down a notch.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments We have a genetic determination to protect and provide for those who share our DNA. So close family before strangers, local village before further off country, humans before non-humans. This encourages the passing on of DNA and survival of the lineage best able to pass on the DNA.


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Hillary Major | 436 comments Re: riddles -- the riddlemasters seem mostly to be a (somewhat but not totally idealized) depiction of academia. The focus seems more on the value of history & knowledge-seeking than on cleverness, which seems more essential to Sphinx/Gollum style riddling.

It was (mildly) funny to read the jokes about going off to college in the early Hed chapters. In the introduction (which I skipped and came back to later in case of spoilers, though it turned out to be pretty spoiler-free), Wrede talks about reading Tolkien for the first time and his influence. Hed definitely seems to be serving the same story function as the Shire.

I found the Isig section evoked Moria, and now that I think about it, there's something of Bjorn in Har. Speaking of Har, I thought the vesta were pretty cool. I was picturing something like an antelope/unicorn/reindeer mashup -- they're not based on any actual animal, are they?


message 17: by Hillary (new)

Hillary Major | 436 comments With all the Welsh and Welsh-ish names and Mabinogion references, the series I thought of most was Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles. And Morgon has some similarities to Taran in that they both do some seemingly-aimless-but-possibly-predestined wandering on the way to maturity.

I often see these books compared to Earthsea. I personally don't think they come up to that level, but I can see some similarities -- the 3rd personal limited POV combined with a little bit of distance or remove, keeping the fairytale/myth tone in the prose. Despite a bit of remove, when I read Earthsea, I always feel like I really know Ged, and I very seldom felt that way about Morgon.

I wasn't really bothered by Morgon's antiviolence, but partly because I didn't always get Morgon and his feelings/perspective overall. (view spoiler) think a lot of the time Morgon is confused, restless but guilty, unsure of himself. Holding a sense of that ambiguity can be pretty interesting, but it can also be trying. (I have to say I'm not particularly interested in the riddle of the three stars. I know they're needed to move the story along -- boy, are they -- but I think I would have cared just as much for Morgon if he was trying to find himself without an obvious marker of Special Chosenness.)


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Andrea | 2524 comments Clare wrote: "I read this some time ago so won't comment on detail. I would happily re-read the series if I had time.
One aspect I enjoyed was that the different rulers of the separate lands, are each an embodi..."


We meet a few we see Har (wolf/vesta shifter), Danan (tree shifter, thought that was cool), Morgol (seeing), not sure what Heureu could do. Morgon is another creature altogether so no comment there. Seems mind reading might be part of it too...and that voice thing, though Harpists to the High One are apparently gifted too, not just land heirs.

Everybody is a thousand years old! And no one seems to think that strange. I mean to me that would be the definition of a wizard: immortality, shapeshifting...why is Har not a wizard but Suth is? Or is immortality plus one unique power the gift of being a landheir of a specific land, it's more genetic/gifted than inherent wizardry?

If so Morgon is a wizard, learning everyone else's powers. Since we don't yet know what he is, that is a possibility of his true nature.

"There are no wizards anymore" and yet absolutely everyone we run into seems to be able to do magic :)

Anyway, more to be learnt in the next book I hope, definitely a big reveal at the end of this one. I suspect Deth was more than he seemed but had no real suspicions beyond that.


message 19: by Hillary (new)

Hillary Major | 436 comments How about that ending? (view spoiler)


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Andrea | 2524 comments Hillary wrote: "How about that ending? (view spoiler)

(view spoiler)

Note that I have not read the second book yet so I could be wrong as to how it ties together yet :)



message 21: by Hillary (new)

Hillary Major | 436 comments not really a spoiler but I'll be conservative: (view spoiler)


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments It's a cliffhanger.


message 23: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 04, 2019 06:27AM) (new)

I really didn't like McKillip's prose (which is odd, because I didn't have that trouble with other McKillip's novels I've read, such as Alphabet of Thorn.) Her use of convoluted sentence structure and disregard of common rules of antecedents annoyed me, starting with the first sentence, which I had to re-read twice to diagram correctly (I prefer my LR(k) grammar with small values of k.)

Here's a humorous example (full paragraph):
Something jumped in the back of Morgon’s throat. It was huge, broad as a farmhorse, with a deer’s delicate, triangular face. Its pelt was blazing white; its hooves and crescents of horn were the color of beaten gold.
That's some sore throat. (As you might guess, the "it" is meant to refer to something from the previous paragraph. Miss Thistlebottom's head explodes.)


message 24: by Ryan (new) - rated it 1 star

Ryan Dash (ryandash) | 16 comments I'm about a quarter of the way through (50ish pages) and am ready to quit. I'm not invested in the story, the characters, or the world, which is confusing (I feel the world-building has been quite poor so far). Does it get better later on? Is it worth investing a bit more time into it?


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments Speaking as an author I can say I advise myself and others never to use it. Especially, refrain from starting sentences or paragraphs with it.


Clare O'Beara | 1142 comments I would keep reading Ryan, the story gets quite dark and involves undead armies. The second book follows a female protagonist and the third reunites the two protagonists.


message 27: by Isabella (new)

Isabella | 63 comments I read this when it was first published and I think many people are missing something. McKillip herself was very young, and a new author, and says somewhere that she is so different a person now that she sees it almost as another's work. No-one would have written then (in the early seventies) with e-readers in mind, that's like wondering why Sherlock Holmes never uses the telephone.
I was very young myself and less critical and fantasy was not the genre it is now. Morgon and Raederle are also very young - student age - which influences their attitudes and behaviour. There are niggles such as have been mentioned, like the nature of the "riddles" but there is a grasp of the passage of time which isn't present in many fantasies.
I don't have a problem with Morgon's near-pacifism, there's no reason why Hed should produce warriors, as explained in the beginning, no-one wanted the island, so why would they develop a defensive habit of mind? There's also a difference for most people between killing animals for food and killing a person up close and personal with a sword.
One criticism is the complexity of the background which does lead to some occasional awkwardness in the plot. I'm still not entirely clear what the motives for the war are but isn't that often the way throughout history?
I recommend that people read the whole set to see what the outcome and motivation is and to do justice to the books as a whole. I've mostly enjoyed the revisit, in spite of a few reservations. One positive for me has been the lack of gratuitous violence and long tedious battle sequences. Life isn't a video game and books, fantasy or not, that treat it as such don't do it for me.


message 28: by Andrea (last edited Apr 05, 2019 10:24AM) (new) - added it

Andrea | 2524 comments Ryan wrote: "(I feel the world-building has been quite poor so far)"

Isabella wrote: "I read this when it was first published and I think many people are missing something"

I am disappointed to kind of agree with the poor worldbuilding statement. I got through the whole book and I still have no idea what the magic system is. Riddle Masters are not Wizards, nor do they seem to use riddles as spells (which was my idea when I started the book). In fact there are supposedly no wizards anymore but everyone seems to be able to shapeshift and read minds. Why do some characters live so long, and other presumably not? What are harpists and what kind of magic to they have? While we shouldn't get an info dump, I should be comfortable with the rules of magic for a world by the time I get a third of the way through the story, instead of feeling there are no rules at all. World building is one of the most important elements to me, sometimes more than characters or plots.

I do accept we are getting this from Morgon's POV, and he doesn't know much himself. That's fine, it was kind of how Zelazny's Amber unraveled as Corwin had to figure out what was going on (and thus the reader), sorting through the truths and lies of the other characters. So not knowing what happened to the ancients is fine with me. But he seems clueless as to how the current world works too, which is weird, him being a Prince himself and supposedly imbued with land-heir powers (his grand destiny thing notwithstanding).

I think we had a similar discussion about LotR, when someone said it was boring and then they got jumped on because they didn't take into account when it was written, the circumstances, the fact that it was new and fresh at the time. And we agreed in the end, that while it's place in history is important, one cannot then say "Oh right, it's not boring/confusing/whatever anymore now that I spent hours researching it before reading it. Those failings are no longer failings but brilliant writing, it was just because I was too uneducated to see it". And frankly, that's not really the case. We can excuse failings due to the historical context but they don't actually go away. And if a reader just wants to enjoy a book and not really care about a book's place in history, then they are free to do so without judgement.

Just because something is old, or was groundbreaking when it came out, doesn't instantly make it "good", it only means there was just nothing better at the time. (I think we came to that conclusion about how The Wanderer managed to win an award...we were all baffled at that one, and figured the competition that year was simply worse)

How one reacts to a book includes the personal baggage and experiences one brings to it. I definitely loved books as a kid that I now cringe at. Or even if I still love it now, how much is my personal nostalgia affecting my view (like do I associate it with being young, and sitting at my country place in the summer sun, etc)? So the thing some of us are "missing" is indeed Isabelle's own personal experience :) Seems I am somewhat younger (in 76 my age was in negative numbers) and by the time I really got into fantasy there was plenty out there to pick from. So the "clueless kid with a destiny" thing, as well as the "world with an ancient history" was pretty common already.

I don't think this book is terrible, I'll finish the trilogy, but it isn't great either. Not because it was historically important when it was written, but that the author succeeded in making me want to know what Morgon's destiny is, even if I have to struggle a bit to get there :)


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Andrea | 2524 comments BTW, I'm actually jealous of people who got to have the first experience of these books without being jaded by having experienced other stuff first. Even just being part of this group has made more critical of what I read since I need to think of things to discuss, plus people do nominate some really good stuff :)

I think my "meh" reaction to Codex Alera was due to being exposed to much better stuff from this group (including The Long Quartet I read at the same time, and thus had ample opportunity to compare the two styles). Otherwise I think I would have simply loved Codex!


message 30: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim (jimmaclachlan) | 2172 comments Isabella wrote: "...that's like wondering why Sherlock Holmes never uses the telephone...."

I wondered about that since I don't recall him using a phone & I don't know why. They were around. The Sherlock Holmes stories are set between 1880 and 1914. By that time, there were quite a few telephones in the UK as Bell demonstrated his phone to Queen Victoria in 1878.
https://owlcation.com/humanities/hist...

Another mystery...


message 31: by Ryan (new) - rated it 1 star

Ryan Dash (ryandash) | 16 comments Andrea wrote: "BTW, I'm actually jealous of people who got to have the first experience of these books without being jaded by having experienced other stuff first. Even just being part of this group has made more..."

I disagree. It's much better for people to enjoy books because they are good rather than enjoy bad books because they haven't been exposed to really good books. There are more than enough great books out there that to waste time reading bad books seems silly. I regret finishing Codex Alera. I'll give Riddle Master a bit more of a chance, but if it doesn't get substantially better soon, I won't be finishing.


message 32: by [deleted user] (last edited Apr 07, 2019 07:44AM) (new)

Andrea wrote: "I am disappointed to kind of agree with the poor worldbuilding statement. I got through the whole book and I still have no idea what the magic system is....
I do accept we are getting this from Morgon's POV, and he doesn't know much himself....."


Except Morgon's been to the ultimate school of the realm, and seems to have memorized every riddle extant. So it's surprising so much surprises him!

It's not uncommon for fantasy novels to build up the world as they go along, but here it strikes me as rather random. Oh, I can teach you to become a moose. I can teach you to become a tree. I can teach you to "shout". I suppose Morgon is special, the Chosen One, because he has those Three Stars, thus his ability to collect all these new powers. But, maybe he should have heard about them in one of those riddles, though.


Andrea wrote: "I think we had a similar discussion about LotR, when someone said it was boring .."

Not a view with which I would agree.

In the sense of having a background, Riddle Masters of Hed is a bit like LotR because it's trying to build a sense of past; Hed just isn't doing a very good job if it.

OTOH, Riddle Master of Hed isn't about heroism. Morgon sets off for a bride, Raederle, only after Deth says he can have her because Raederle's dad vowed to give her to the winner of riddle contest for the Crown of Aum. (Really, dad? I guess he wanted to make sure his little girl married a college man. :) Morgon had apparently never thought much of Raederle (sister of a college buddy) until Deth mentioned her; sort of like getting a coupon for free french fries and setting off to McDonalds. (Aside: is it odd Morgon doesn't have some woman – or women – in his life already from around home?) After he loses the Crown itself in a shipwreck*, he decides to head home, but vacillates between getting answers about the Three Star and going home (said vacillation usually involving going hundreds of miles in opposite directions. I think it's this whole "go north", "go south" stuff that bored me with Morgon.

*By the way, as I read King Mathom's vow, Morgon doesn't actually need the Crown of Aum to claim Raederle; she's promised to whoever won the crown from Peven, not its current holder. Offer non-transferable. Morgon should get a good lawyer. :)


message 33: by Mary (new) - rated it 5 stars

Mary Catelli | 695 comments Yeah, the riddles are weird.

And there is the way that SOME kings are immortal, and some live and die like other men, and no one ever comments on it.


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