These observations are about the opening. I don't want to forget some of these initial observations.
I found the opening chapter for the Riddle-Master of Hed very rough. The opening chapter introduces us to a man named Morgon who seems to have no good sense whatsoever, gets into a random fistfight with an array of characters, meets a harper, and then makes the mildest reference to the starts on his head. I were to judge this book by the first two or three chapters, I would put it into the recycle bin. The opening simply does not work for me. The first few chapters utterly fail to achieve a narrative.
Why do I call Morgon an idiot? Well, Morgon is a riddle-master, trained in knowledge. He tells the story of how he went to a tower to win a crown from a ghost. Fair enough. Yet somehow, despite being trained in knowledge, he did not know that the King of that particular country had offered his daughter's hand to whoever won that crown. Even more spectacular, his best friend is the son of that king and the brother to the girl, and he still doesn't know these things. How does this happen? How does this even seem to happen?
The beginning does feature a fantasic narrative, but that narrative is the story that isn't told. A man goes to the ghost of a dead king, willing to win his crown. Why? I am honestly at a loss at why McKillip opened the book the way that she did when. It's the sort of opening that an inexperienced writer creates. Why this trainwreck while Eld, published so near in time, opens so well?
The opening chapters also dump a vast amount of information at you. Rather than read these chapters, I fell back to scanning through the text. The signal to noise ratio of those early chapters was rather poor. In my opinion, there was too much noise to too little narrative.
By chapter five, McKillip leaves the opening behind. The noise goes down, the narrative firms up, and the text flow begins carrying the story along on its own.
Of special note is the harper. I had forgotten just how prevalent harpers were in 70's fantasy. I must remember to subvert that tradition in my own books.