Solstice Wood, By Patricia A. McKillip, Ace Books, 278 pp, $23.95
In ''Solstice Wood," Patricia A. McKillip draws on the mountain village setting of her 1996 fantasy novel ''Winter Rose" to create a contemporary fairy tale, a story of the fear and attraction binding the townspeople and the woodland creatures known as the fay.
McKillip conjures a world of secrets and ambiguities, where the magical and the mundane constantly intersect. On a summer's morning, for example, a character encounters the queen of the fairies in town and, alarmed, tries calling 911 on her cellphone. Unwitting villagers find themselves lured into dreamlike realms, and even the fairies' enchanting habitats have their share of domestic comforts. Characters' identities, even their shapes, are fluid; we're never quite sure who is human and who is fay.
The earlier novel tells the story of Rois Melior, a young woman with a passion for roaming the woods, and her fascination with Corbet Lynn, a stranger who has come to town to rebuild Lynn Hall, the family home. ''Solstice Wood" features the Lynn descendants. Old Liam Lynn has fallen asleep under the stars and died. Sadly noting that he had ''a streak of Melior in him," Liam's wife, Iris, summons their granddaughter Sylvia to Lynn Hall for the funeral. Sylvia had moved across the country and stayed away for seven years. A tug of war ensues: Iris wants Sylvia to stay; Sylvia hopes to leave as soon as possible.
McKillip does not overdo the whimsy or let her inventiveness run amok. Her approach is cool, understated. Even readers who think they don't like fantasy may find themselves drawn in. Shifting the narrative among several characters, she allows us to get to know them first as individuals, through their observations and memories, only hinting at the supernatural forces swirling about them.
Gradually we learn about the beliefs that rule the characters' lives. Trusting in village lore, Iris views the fay as ''cold-blooded" and ''cold-hearted"; she hopes to initiate Sylvia into the Fiber Guild, a sewing circle whose stitches seal off the passageways between the human and fairy worlds. Sylvia, herself part fay, frets over how her loving, unsuspecting grandmother would react to having one of the despised aliens in her midst.
Iris's efforts cannot contain curiosity and desire. A few villagers, falling prey to the charms of the fay, are drawn into their world, and the boundaries between the two realms unravel. While the suspense arises from the struggle to rescue the wanderers, ''Solstice Wood" is more than an action tale. The experiences of the characters who find sustenance in the company of the fay make us wonder whether they really are as heartless as Iris imagines. Is the contest between good and evil more presumed than real? The resolution holds surprises.
The true conflict in ''Solstice Wood" is among the villagers themselves: some know what they know because they've been told; others view their surroundings as a ''riddle" to explore. Faith in ''common lore, local history, family tradition" builds community but narrows vision. With a light touch, McKillip makes a plea for keeping an open mind and heart toward mystery, toward all that goes on ''in the shadows, the corners, behind and beneath" what we expect to see.