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The Throme of the Erril of Sherill3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsOne of Patricia McKillip’s very earliest stories for children, The Throme of the Erril of Sherill is a delightful fractured fairy tale with a sly wit that even adult readers will appreciate. It’s a gentle story about finding your happy place within reasonable goals and your own accomplishments, rather than longing for the impossible.

Magnus Thrall, the King of Everywhere, desperately wishes to possess the titular artifact, “a wild, special, sweet Throme made of the treasure of words…” But the Throme does not exist. Nonetheless, the king will not be persuaded to abandon his folly. His chief Cnite (the story is peppered with these cute plays upon words), Caerles, agrees to go on a quest to locate this mythical item, as Magnus has refused to let Caerles marry his daughter Damsen otherwise. Caerles travels far and wide, encountering a host of curious characters who offer him misdirection and bad advice, in return for which he ends up exchanging his sword for a glowing staff, his shield for a golden harp, his mail shirt for a cloak of leaves, and his horse for a “dagon” (a horse-sized dog that breathes fire, and honestly I think he got the better end of the deal there).

McKillip’s writing evokes classic fairy tales and bedtime stories, her prose full of such lush descriptive passages that the story becomes a visual feast. The 1987 Ace mass market printing that I read also has stunning — especially for mass market! — interior layouts with intricate pen-and-ink illustrations by Judith Mitchell. (The artist for the original 1973 release was Julia Noonan.) Like the best of the old fables, McKillip’s story achieves immersion by being haunting and strange in all the right moments, without becoming too frightening for its young audience. A unique and memorable early achievement for one of fantasy’s best fabulists.

The Ace edition also includes a bonus short story from 1982, THE HARROWING OF THE DRAGON OF HOARSBREATH (★★★). This one is much darker and more foreboding in tone, and feels suitable for the tween audience just outgrowing middle grade and ready to push into YA. A young girl, Peka, lives on the titular island, where the sun only shines for two months a year and the locals live by mining gold during the frozen months and brewing a potent drink called wormspoor. She reluctantly agrees to be a guide for Ryd, a dragon harrower born on Hoarsbreath, who has returned from the mainland claiming an ice dragon keeps the island perpuetually frozen. But Peka worries what will become of her people and their livelihood if Ryd manages to get rid of the dragon. Is it such a menace? A visually arresting fable with a lesson about obsession and unintended consequences, without a happy ending. This also appears in the 2005 collection Harrowing the Dragon and the 2010 Night Shade Books anthology Wings of Fire.