The Prince of Morning Bells

 The Prince of Morning Bells, by Nancy Kress

I heard of this some time ago, undoubtedly from somebody's blog, but it took a while to track it down.   It was originally printed in 1981, and has been out of print for a very long time.  This is Nancy Kress' first published novel, and she went on to do more fantasy and then SF, which I have not read (though I wouldn't mind).  And I rather assumed this was a story for younger readers, which it isn't.  It's a somewhat unusual fantasy tale, really.

Kirila is the crown princess of her small kingdom, but what she really wants to do is go on a quest.  Not just any old quest, but a Quest, for the Heart of the World.  So in her eighteenth year, off she goes, with a fine horse, a jeweled dagger, plenty of everything she might need, and a small talking bat the court wizard gives her for company and guidance.

The bat doesn't actually work out too well, but Kirila soon meets Chessie, a talking dog, who says he's an enchanted prince, the victim of a rotten wizard who held him captive and made him play chess every evening.  Chessie is also a handsome dark purple Labrador.  He and Kirila team up; surely once they find the Heart of the World (which Chessie has heard lies in the Tents of Omnium) they'll be able to de-enchant him.  

Kirila is prone to distraction, however.  When they meet the Quirks, who claim to have the Heart of the World cataloged in their genealogies and universal model, she studies with them for months.  Then she feels the need to stay in the village of Ruour, where white falcons -- apparently the Lielthen who created the world -- appear once a year and choose one person to join them.   They do find a clue about Chessie as they travel on, disguised as troubadours.   And finally, Kirila falls in love and marries the prince of a very tiny kingdom.  Chessie, who has borne with all of this, is heartbroken and leaves to continue his quest on his own.

I was utterly shocked that Kirila really does marry the prince and settle down.  The tale picks up again 25 years later (!!), when she and Chessie are reunited and he now knows where the Tents of Omnium are.  But he wasn't allowed in.  What to do?

Definitely an unusual tale, but also carries that feeling of the odder fantasy stories of the late 70s/early 80s.  Krell was certainly influenced by the Last Unicorn, but it's not a ripoff; she takes things in a very different kind of direction and does not follow anybody's template.  I enjoyed it, and I think it's worth a read.


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