This week I’m recommending `The Prince of Morning Bells’ by Nancy Kress, which was first published in 1981. Over the years I’ve seen  many dedicated Fantasy readers go misty-eyed when they mentioned this out of print novel. None of them would lend me their own cherished copies and I never came across one for sale. I began to think that `The Prince of Morning Bells’ didn’t really exist, but recently I discovered that it was reprinted in 2000 by FoxAcre Press as part of their list of Classic SF and Fantasy (see Now, there is a widely available ebook edition.

When the story starts, eighteen year-old Crown Princess Kirila of Kiril is bored with `all the customary princess things’ , such as conjugating verbs, working a tapestry and feeding strawberry tarts to the moat serpent. She decides to go on a Quest to discover the Heart of the World in order to find out what’s most important in life. The princess insists that `It will be a learning experience, as well as an adventure!’ She gets her way and rides north with only a jewelled dagger and an ill-tempered talking bat to protect her. When the bat turns nasty, Kirila is rescued by a purple Labrador dog called Chessie. He claims to be an enchanted prince – an old mind in the body of a young dog – but can’t remember anything else about his former life. Chessie is trying to reach the Tents of Omnium, the only place where his enchantment can be removed. He seems sure that the Heart of the World is also to be found in the Tents of Omnium, so Kirila and Chessie travel on together.

Their journey proves to be difficult, dangerous and full of diversions. Kirila spends a long time among a race of  subterranean creatures known as Quirks, studying their Model of how the universe works, and then living with a group of farmers who worship awe-inspiring bird-like deities called the Lielthien. Chessie eventually persuades her to continue her True Quest. Disguised as a minstral boy, Kirila learns the personal cost of fighting evil. When they encounter a Renkin, an enchanted being who is only conscious for three hours a month, they bribe it to tell them about the route to the Tents of Omnium and Chessie’s original identity.  Kirila gets an ambiguous rhyme for guidance, while the only clue to his past that Chessie is offered is the sound of bells. A chance meeting with a handsome prince distracts Kirila from her Quest again and this time there seems to be nothing that faithful Chessie can do about it. Will Kirila ever reach the Heart of the World and will Chessie ever remember who he was and become a man again?

Anyone who reads this plot summary and expects a neat `Beauty and the Beast’ style happy ending will be surprised and disappointed. `The Prince of Morning Bells’  isn’t a Romance, even though Kirila experiences various kinds of love during her travels. This was Kress’s first novel and, in an Afterword to the new edition, she admits that it was strongly influenced by Peter Beagle’s haunting book,`The Last Unicorn’. This shows in the cheery scattering of anachronisms to distance the reader from the standard Fantasy setting and the way that what is normally  the subtext (the quest as a journey of self-discovery) blatantly becomes the story. `Life’ we are told `has Ups and Downs, but its Charm is searching out and explaining the Strange’. This is a Quest with a capital Q during which Karila tries out the Truths offered by Science, Religion, Art and Family Life. These Truths are not condemned as false but they are all shown to have their drawbacks and limitations and none of them is a perfect fit with Karila’s vision of the Tents of Omnium. When family responsibilities finally allow, she is driven to keep searching.

If this description makes `The Prince of Morning Bells’ sound like a tedious allegory, I apologize. It is a highly entertaining read, full of dry wit and inventive humour. Kress writes sardonically about her heroine’s enthusiasms, especially during Karila’s religious phase when she treats the sceptical Chessie to `a smile so gentle, so inlaid with pity, that he almost bit her’. Chessie, with his purple fur and `burnt sugar’ eyes is a great comic character. He sings ballads about gentle knights being seduced and beaten up by fairies, tells outrageous stories, like the one about St Agnes developing an allergy to sacred lambs, and can mimic almost any accent `including that of a seraph disputing the right of way with an airborn buzzard’. Karila and Chessie are soul-mates who constantly argue but they keep each other going through thick and thin, until Chessie begins to lose his humanity and becomes more and more dog-like. This is a light-hearted story that turns heart-breaking.

The frivolity of the early chapters gives way to convincing descriptions of the misery of travelling in bad weather and the boredom of spending the winter in cramped quarters. The mock combat of Knightly jousting is contrasted with the sordid reality of sudden acts of violence and their aftermath. Karila is an unusual Fantasy heroine because she makes the kind of serious mistakes that so many of us make in real life and has to take the long-term consequences. She’s also unusual because the story follows her over a period of many years.  Karila chooses to give up her dreams of accomplishing a `True Quest’ and accept a conventional `ever after’ but in middle age she takes up the search for meaning again. That makes her story particularly relevant to middle-aged Fantasy readers who have never quite found what they were looking for in life. I’m guessing that’s a lot of us. What Karila eventually discovers amongst the Tents of Omnium isn’t what I would have chosen to put there, but that doesn’t matter. `The Prince of Morning Bells’ is a book worth arguing with and it has one of the most memorable endings in all of Fantasy fiction. Until next week…