Subcreation of worlds that are both internally coherent and relevant to the reader's emotions and experience is one of the cornerstones of the fantasy genre. This style, which has been called "high fantasy", isn't the only approach to writing good fantasy, but, when done well, is one of the richest and most satisfying to read. We would probably all agree that J.R.R. Tolkien is the master of this creative process, and that his lovingly detailed construction of Middle-earth is the manuscript to which the works of other writers inevitably are compared. Several other writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea), C.S. Lewis (Narnia), Mervyn Peake (Gormenghast), Lord Dunsany, and Stephen R. Donaldson have each created a rich and believable world in which they set their tales of magic and power, coming-of-age and getting-of-wisdom. Patricia McKillip has done this a half-dozen times.
The world McKillip creates in her newest novel, The Book of Atrix Wolfe, is not that very different from other fantasy creations with a loosely medieval European setting. The author, as with all her books, doesn't spend a lot of words on exposition, but gives us a tantalizing glimpse of the history of the lands of Pelucir and Chaumenard through the story she tells. In fact, the most complete physical description McKillip gives us is of the palace kitchens in Pelucir, where Saro, her identity and her voice forgotten, spends years while her mother tries to find her. [Personally, I found this part of the story delightful; in most books (Gormenghast excepted of course!), the kitchens are merely some black hole the feasts emerge from.] This is a land where magic and wizards are known, and sometimes feared. Intriguingly, it's also a world which has a Faery realm, ruled by the Queen of the Wood and not easily reached from the lands of humans, with or without power.
McKillip's Wood, with its red-haired Queen and her hunt, reminds me of the Faery worlds of Lord Dunsany; the descriptions are rich and dreamlike and very otherworldly. I would like to visit this Wood. The story, however, is about power and its misuse, and about redemption. There is an obvious comparison between Atrix Wolfe and Le Guin's wizard of Earthsea, Ged, but there are intriguing differences between the two mages. We see Atrix first not as a young man but in the fullness of his power; his actions in creating the Hunter to stop the siege of Pelucir are well-meant (unlike Ged's arrogant use of power to demonstrate his talent) but they contradict the code the wizards follow, and the results are disastrous. Atrix's part in the destruction on Hunter's Field is not discovered (unlike Ged's summoning of the shadow) and he is able to disappear into the mountains and live for years as a shapechanger and healer before events force him to face the past. Atrix cannot repair the damage he has done, and he cannot even begin to make some amends to the Queen of the Wood, by returning her lost child, without the help of Talis, a young prince of Pelucir and a magician-in-training. In the end, having made some peace with the Queen of the Wood and the People of Pelucir, Atrix remains as a teacher; his great deeds (which are never described, only alluded to) are over. This approach, presenting Atrix as a mage haunted by his power, makes the character very sympathetic. The bittersweet ending -- Ilyos, the Queen's consort, cannot return to his life in the Wood, while Saro is torn between the two worlds -- feels right. We are all changed by our experiences and our mistakes; we must learn from them and move on.
I wonder if it is becoming more difficult for readers to appreciate this type of fantasy. There doesn't seem to be much "high fantasy" -- or at least good examples; I'm not including those innumerable endless quest series filling up the bookstore shelves -- being written at present. Many of the best new fantasists are taking the "indigenous fantasy" approach of setting their stories in the "real world" (present or historical past" and adding fantastic elements. I like a lot of this stuff. But I also like to return for a time to Earthsea or Eld or Middle-earth, and I hope to continue to explore other new lands and to look for my place in them.