The Changeling Sea: A sweet, simple fairytale about the sea

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Patricia McKillip The Changeling SeaThe Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip

I’m a huge fan of Patricia McKillip’s work, but it’s taken me a while to get my hands on The Changeling Sea, and once read I found that it was a rather unique addition to her body of work. One of her earliest books (published back in 1988), and possibly her only work that was written specifically with a young audience in mind, The Changeling Sea is a slender novel with an extremely simple plot.

After her father’s death at sea, Peri (short for Periwinkle) and her mother become estranged. Peri takes up residence at the abandoned shack on the seashore, spending her days working at the inn and her nights staring at the sea. Finally frustrated into action, Peri calls upon what little magic she has and casts several hexes into the sea. Her actions are to have far-reaching consequences, for this charm calls into her life two princes — one from the land, one from the sea — who both need her help in finding their heart’s desire.

The basic outline of the changeling tale is an old one, and McKillip plays the trope straight: a king’s son begat on a sea-woman replaces the son of the king’s wife, with each child growing up in the “wrong” environment. It’s up to Peri and the travelling wizard Lyo to try and put the matter straight; a synopsis so simple that it’s in danger of revealing the entire plot. Yet it’s not in the familiar patterns of the story that the worth The Changeling Sea lies, it’s in the elegant way that McKillip tells it.

McKillip is renowned for the dense and metaphorical language in which she writes her stories, and though her trademark poetic-prose is considerably toned down for this particular book, she still writes beautifully. The small fishing village in which Peri lives is brought to vivid life — you can almost smell the scent of the fish and hear the roar of the ocean, and Peri herself makes for a largely passive protagonist, but an acute observer of the strange events that unfold before her. It’s an interesting choice to have the story of the two changeling princes told through the eyes of a young girl on the brink of womanhood, but her transient state is a perfect reflection of the two worlds that various characters straddle over the course of the story: the land and sea.

The Changeling Sea is a simple, original, effective fairytale; a very short novel that most people could read it in two sittings, maybe even one. But while it lasts, it’s a bit like watching the sun go down: very bright, very beautiful and strangely poignant.

The Changeling Sea — (1988) Young adult. Publisher: Peri hated the sea that had taken her father and left her mother bemused in dreams. With her doubtful magic, she tried weaving hexes to keep the water from ever again stealing from the land. One night Prince Kir, who yearned for the sea, found Peri at her hexes and asked her to send a message from him. She cast it into the sea with her hexes. Then a sea-dragon hove up, bound by a chain of gold. When a magician changed the gold to flowers, the sea went wild, endangering the fishermen. And by night, the sea-dragon changed and came to land as a fair youth, strangely like Kir. Against the Sea-Queen’s revenge for ancient betrayal, Peri seemed helpless. But something had to be done. And she meant to do it!

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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