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Book Review: The Bell at Sealy Head by Patricia A. McKillip

* Genre: Literary Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Fantasy
* ISBN: 0441016308
* ISBN-13: 9780441016303
* Format: Hardcover, 277pp
* Publisher: ACE
* Pub. Date: September 2008
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I’ve always meant to take the time to read some of World Fantasy Award winner, Patricia A. McKillip’s work. I mean, she is a world fantasy award winner, right? She has to be good. So when Ace was kind enough to send me a copy of McKillip’s latest, The Bell at Sealy Head, I put aside what I was currently reading and dived right in.

I wasn’t disappointed. The Bell at Sealy Head is a novel length fairy tale. The story is about a little town called Sealy Head, where a mysterious bell rings everyday at sunset. The locals of this small fishing village always ascribed the bell to a story of a ship sinking at sea, but haven’t thought much more about it than that. That is, until many strangers show up in their small town and begin asking questions. It is soon revealed that the bell not tied to the sea, but rather to Aislinn House, the seat of the local nobility. What follows involves a parallel world, princesses, sorcery, and the intersection of myth and pragmatism.

McKillip’s work can only be described as literary fantasy. The book reads like a work of classic literature. Like Susanna Clark’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell it evokes the feeling of an author we have read before. Whereas Clarke’s work has been compared to Jane Austen, McKillip’s The Bell at Sealy Head is more of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, or an Andrew Lang tale.

McKillip’s characters will also appeal to people who read a lot. Judd McCauley is the local book worm who also happens to run a rapidly declining inn. This is fine with him, since all he really wants to do is read. Gwyneth Blair, the local merchant’s daughter and Judd’s lady love, is a writer who rarely allows anyone to read her stories, many of which are based on or create new legends for the history of Sealy Head. One can almost imagine that Blair is McKillip herself in disguise, especially when Gwyneth voices her writing frustrations. These two characters are the primary motivators of the story, although many other characters appear, making this an ensemble story, rather than a character-driven one.

McKillip also uses the writing aspect of Gwyneth’s character to tell a side story, a legend that explains the myth of Sealy Head. This story progresses alongside the main plot but is not related to it. It is simply enchanting to read and adds a greater sense of myth to the novel as a whole.

The story ultimately centers on the theme of the imagination. The people of Sealy Head are mostly prosaic, stolid folk with little imagination. It is the dreamers, Gwyneth, Judd, and a few others, who delve into the mystery of Aislinn House, discovering that there is much more to the world than the simple practicalities of everyday life. The Bell at Sealy Head is an ode to the imagination, celebrating its ability to give life to the most basic, mundane of things. In this case, it is the sound of a bell and an old house, but imagination is what makes this story so fine in quality.

Readers who enjoyed Susanna Clarke, or who enjoy fairy tales, legends and myths will find The Bell at Sealy Head very much to their liking. But in reality, McKillip’s work breaks genre and becomes simply a work of superb writing, interesting plotting, and nuanced characters. In reading it, I was reminded very much of the movie Gosford Park in which an excellent ensemble cast of brilliant actors tells the story of a weekend at a noble’s summer house. None of the actors stole the show from the story, and the mystery story it relates was fascinating to watch unfold. The Bell at Sealy Head is much like that. Each character is interesting, but none steals the show, there are many surprises, and the resolution to the mystery of Aislinn House is satisfying and exciting. I highly recommend reading The Bell at Sealy Head.

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