King of Morning, Queen of Day by Ian McDonald: An Appreciation

My recent discussion of unlikely mentors and guardians reminded me of Tireseas and Gonzaga, two “mystical vagabonds” (book jacket description) in one of the best fantasy novels I’ve ever read.

Ian McDonald, a visionary author who lives in Belfast, published  King of Morning, Queen of Day in 1991.  I still pick it up to read certain passages or a random chapter, to study and enjoy the ideas, the writing, and characters.

The narrative follows three women of three generations who are alternately attracted and attacked by creatures of the Mygmus, a technical name for the infinitely overlapping worlds of Faerie.

“The Mygmus may be viewed not so much as a place, a spatio-temporal relationship, a quasi-Euclidean geometrical domain, but as a state.  The concept is a familiar one in modern quantum physics, in which time is not considered a dynamic process, but a succession of recurring states eternally coexistent.  Such thinking liberates us from our essentially linear concepts of time, with past, present, and future.”  So reads a manuscript given to one of the women by a strange group of deformed, “Midnight Children.”

The first of the women, romantic, Edwardian Emily, dreams of a faerie lover and seeks him out.  First her rapes her, and then she disappears.

Gonzaga and Tireseas help Emily’s daughter, Jessica, battle free of the otherworld threat, which is personified by her mother, who has become a demonic force.

Jessica’s daughter, Enye, modern young woman in Dublin, battles Otherworld manifestations at night with martial arts swords.  Gonzaga and Tireseas charge her blades with high tech wizardry as well as ancient charms that allows her to win her way into Faerie, redeem her grandmother, Emily, and return to modern day Dublin.  The author gives the ending a contemporary twist that I won’t reveal here.

McDonald’s characters are among the most vivid in any novel I can remember, painted with a sure touch both in broad stroke and detail.  Every December, for instance, I reread “Enye’s soliloquy” – my name for it, with a nod to Molly Bloom.  It’s her internal monologue, in response to the question, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have Christmas all year long?”  It’s a long single sentence paragraph – not quite as long as the one that ends Joyce’s Ulysses, but then Joyce doesn’t make me laugh out loud.  I’ll quote the whole thing next December.

With his first book, Desolation Road, 1988, Ian McDonald won critical acclaim, and an Arthur C. Clarke award nomination.  Like other cyberpunk authors at the time, his vision of the impact of  technology at the birth of the internet age continues to amaze.  As a quick aside in King of Morning, Queen of Day, McDonald throws out a challenge to fantasy writers that has largely remained unanswered in the 21 years since it was written.  In the same manuscript that defined the Mygmus, Enye reads:

“I have this dread that…somehow we have lost the power to generate new mythologies for a technological age.  We are withdrawing into another age’s mythotypes, an age when the issues were so much simpler…and could be solved with one stroke of a sword called something like Durththane.  We have created a comfortable, sanitized pseudo feudal world of trolls and orcs and mages and swords and sorcery, big-breasted women in scanty armor and dungeon masters; a world where evil is a host of angry goblins threatening to take over Hobbitland and not starvation in the Horn of Africa, child slavery in Filipino sweatshops, Colombian drug squirarchs, unbridled free market forces, secret police, the destruction of the ozone layer, child pornography, snuff videos, the death of whales, and the desecration of the rain forests.

Where is the mythic archetype who will save us from ecological catastrophe, or credit card debt…where are the Translators who can shape our dreams and dreads, our hopes and fears, into the heroes and villains of the Oil Age?”

Ian McDonald

I haven’t kept up with the work of Ian McDonald in the two decades since I first read King of Morning but returning to the book via the characters of Tireseas and Gonzaga reminded me to do so. McDonald published Planesrunner, his first YA fantasy, in December, 2011. Here’s the blurb:

“When Everett Singh’s scientist father is kidnapped from the streets of London, he leaves young Everett a mysterious app on his computer. Suddenly, this teenager has become the owner of the most valuable object in the multiverse—the Infundibulum—the map of all the parallel earths, and there are dark forces in the Ten Known Worlds who will stop at nothing to get it.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but this is my very next read.

2 thoughts on “King of Morning, Queen of Day by Ian McDonald: An Appreciation

  1. 1st comment is a quick question – How have I never heard of this book before? It sounds quite interesting, and has just been added to my list of books to buy as soon as possible.

    I also think that his challenge to fantasy writers is at least starting to be taken up. In several of the fantasy books that I’ve read recently, I’m starting to see a definite movement away from Tolkien’s races (elves, dwarves, orcs) where authors are creating their own creatures. Glancing at my bookshelves the reavers from David Farland’s Runelords series come quickly to mind or even something like the dementors from the Harry Potter series.

    Some fantasy novels are also starting to deal with issues that are more relevant today. Although I wasn’t a fan of the third book in the series, Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy dealt a lot with how the attacks by the Red Ship Raiders affected trade throughout the entire kingdom. I’ve also seen a couple books where slavery is a major issue for the characters, as well as the environmental concerns that characters have.


    • I think you’re right, Adam. “American Gods” comes to mind as an adult fantasy that blends the old and the new. And even the middle grade book I just finished, “The Lightning Thief” that puts Medusa in a roadside statuary store in New Jersey, and casts Aries as a biker. I mention these simply because I think McDonald is such a lover of mythology that he isn’t suggestion writing in another genre as much as suggesting fantasy writers look around rather than simply follow beaten paths.


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