A bell rings in Sealey Head, at sundown, every night of the year. The people all hear it but they don't know where it comes from. Some think it's a ship's bell, a ship that was lost hundreds of years ago perhaps, ringing deep under the sea. But strangely no one has ever actually tried to find out the real source of the sound.
Judd Cauley runs an inn on the cliffs, overlooking the ocean. The inn is rundown, hardly anyone ever comes to stay, so Judd and his blind father are rather down on their luck. And then a mysterious visitor arrives, one Ridley Dow. He soon makes it clear to Judd that he thinks the bell ringing is somehow magical, nothing to do with ships lost at sea.
In another part of town an old woman lies dying. Aislinn house is the 'big house' of the town and the old lady is wealthy. Her heir must be called for and thus Miranda Beryl arrives in the town with an entourage so large they can't all be accommodated at the house. Instead they will stay at Judd's inn, the inn's fortunes are on the up at last.
Aislinn house itself it a pretty odd place. Emma, a housemaid, sees things there. She opens doors and sees Ysabo, a young woman clearly from a another time, whose whole life is bound up with ritual... certain tasks which have to be performed at precise times of the day or else... But Ysabo doesn't know what 'or else' might entail: she badly wants to know, but questions are not allowed. The newcomer to the inn, Ridley Dow, is strangely interested in the goings on at Aislinn house. Again, he thinks magic is somehow involved. It's all deeply mysterious and Ridley's comings and goings and weird theories end up involving Judd, his friend, Gwyneth, and her friends the Sproule siblings. When Ridley suddenly disappears it's up to them to solve the mystery of the bell at Sealey Head.
Well, this is the first book I've read by author, Patricia McKillip. I'd heard of her of course, anyone who reads a lot of fantasy books, probably has, but her books seem to stay on the other side of the Atlantic. It's rare to see anything by her in a UK bookshop, and in the whole of Devon, no library has even one of her books: I think that's rather a shame.
A shame because this book with its mix of historical 'real life' and a magical 'other world' was quite unlike any fantasy book I've ever read. Hard to put my finger on why because really I don't think this plotline is unique. It doesn't feel unique and yet I felt I was reading something very different. Perhaps it was the writing. It was at times quite sparse, especially with the dialogue, and then at other times it wasn't. Sometimes I had to reread lines to get their correct meaning. That should have been to its detriment but in fact it felt just the opposite. The writing was actually quite lyrical and I wanted to know what the author had actually said and meant so I reread quite often. I suppose in a way this kind of writing suited the storyline to a tee. A book full of magic needs a sort of imprecise, lyrical form of writing. Almost poetic really.
This might have been my first book by Patricia McKillip but I don't think it'll be my last. I'm normally not great on this kind of thing, retold fairy stories are not really for me for instance, though this is 'not quite' that either. It's 'not quite' a lot of things but it worked for me with its coastal, 'ocean' setting, it's historical background, a bit of magic and a touch of romance thrown in. A very fitting end to this years Once Upon a Time challenge.