Review: Shadows, Robin McKinley

The beginning: Maggie can’t stand her stepfather. Although Val is good to her mother and kind to her, she has never warmed up to him. The reason is that he has too many shadows — shadows with legs and teeth.

Shadows

Cover report: I couldn’t find a different British cover (yet? maybe it comes out later?). This cover is fine. Not particularly exciting, but I can imagine that this would be a difficult book to put a cover to.

The end (there are spoilers in this section, so skip it if you don’t want to know): I wanted to know what Val’s deal was: good, bad, or unwitting? The answer turns out to be good and unwitting(ish) about some things. By the end of the book, Maggie has evidently discovered some things about herself that she didn’t know before, as she and her friends now appear to be under some sort of magical protection by her aunts, and she has become (or is about to become??) Val’s apprentice.

The whole: The most distractible and discursive of authors, Robin McKinley has a particular affinity for an origin story. Many of her books are about women finding out:

  1. What they are capable of; and
  2. Who’s on their team

While 1 + 2 do not alone an origin story make, they are at least suggestive of more adventures to come. The major action of Shadows is, as well, the kind of small-scale victory that tends to cap off an origin story, leaving alive the larger-scale problems that the hero and her team will have to level up in order to defeat. The climactic victories in origin stories tend to be about trying out the newly-discovered (or newly acquired) powers, and about buying time to get better at them. You know that the truly clever tricks are yet to come.

(Or maybe I have become as soul-dead a sequel hound as ever gladdened the heart of a Hollywood executive.)

I enjoy an origin story, and I enjoyed Shadows. The systems of magic are interesting and varied, which is a gift that Robin McKinley has. Maggie learns, in an escalating series of trials by fire, that her world and its occupants are much, much weirder than she could have imagined. I loved all of this. My only complaint at the end was that I wanted more, more, more: What does she do next? What does she learn? When she leaves her place of refuge, what does her new normal look like?

(But alas, I’ll never know.)

Review: Pegasus, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley writes lots of stories where girls (or, ever so occasionally, boys) make friends with people you wouldn’t necessarily think they would make friends with. A Latin geek and a monster; a baker and a vampire; a princess and a pegasus. This friend-making tends to happen in between lots and lots of worldbuilding. Whether I like the book or not tends to depend on how interesting I find the world, and how invested I become in one or both of the characters making friends.

Pegasus is set in the kingdom of Balsinland, where the peace treaty between humans and the pegasi of Rhiandomeer is perpetually sealed by a binding ceremony that connects well-bred humans to well-bred pegasi. In general, the bonded pair do not interact all that much, as they cannot communicate without the assistance of human Speakers or pegasus shamans. But when Princess Sylvi, fourth child and first daughter of King Corone, is bonded to her pegasus, Ebon, she finds that they can talk to each other with no problem. Unprecedented as Ebon and Sylvi’s close relationship is, it excites hostility in many of the humans, and particularly in the magician Fthoom, who makes it his particular project to keep Ebon and Sylvi apart.

The core of this book is the relationship between Ebon and Sylvi, and that’s what shines. They are best friends from age twelve, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still surprise each other at age sixteen. Nor does their unique understanding of the other’s culture keep them from making mistakes. McKinley does a great job, as she always does with her supernatural characters, of depicting the fundamental otherness of the pegasi: these are not the winged horses from your seventh-grade trapper-keeper, but an alien race with its own language and culture and history. As much as Sylvi loves Ebon, she sometimes struggles with the difference between his people and her own.

Another thing McKinley tends to well is families. Sylvi’s parents are both fully fleshed out characters, whose relationships with Sylvi heavily inform the plot. The same is true of Ebon’s family, which Sylvi gets to meet in the second half of the book. The fullness of characters in the periphery of Sylvi and Ebon’s lives suggests that things are happening beyond the edges of what the book covers. Robin McKinley’s gift for worldbuilding is equally evident in her secondary characters.

I’ve seen several reviews that complained of the problematic pacing in this book, which starts out with a bit of an infodump and accelerates rapidly after Sylvi meets Ebon’s family. I have found this to be a perennial problem with Robin McKinley’s work, but in this case it didn’t bother me. I liked the world she was building, and I was willing to take some time to explore it (not so much the case with her last two, Chalice and Dragonhaven). I also didn’t mind the cliffhanger, for two reasons: (1) it wasn’t nearly as appalling a cliffhanger as y’all (ERIN) made it sound (it was no “He was out in the Dark. Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy,” if you know what I mean); and (2) my sister assures me Robin McKinley is busily writing the sequel as we speak.

Random complaint: I hate the use of “pegasi” as the plural. It’s not wrong in the sense of being linguistically problematic – the name “Pegasus” came from Greek mythology and transliterated smoothly into Latin, so if there were going to be a Latin plural it would be pegasi – but I just don’t like it. It’s forced and smug and facile, like a used-car salesman. A Greek plural would be more elegant, or if that came off pretentious, I wouldn’t have minded “pegasus” as a plural (like “deer” or “fish”). When I am the boss of the world (at which point, among other things, Ernest Hemingway should fear for his place in the canon), I will command Robin McKinley to change this in accordance with my desires.

They read it too:

Aelia Reads
The Literary Omnivore
Ela’s Blog
Charlotte’s Library (interview with Robin McKinley)
A Literary Odyssey
Bookalicious
Graeme’s Fantasy Review
Dear Author
Babbling about Books, and More
Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Polishing Mud Balls

Did I miss yours? I will add a link if so!

Review: Chalice, Robin McKinley

So this is my adult fantasy or science fiction book for Jeane‘s DogEar Challenge, and I have managed to finish it before the end of November, which I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do, what with all the applying to grad school I’ve been doing and whatnot.  Chalice!

I have figured out the key to Robin McKinley, and I will tell you what it is.  In each of her books, she has a world that she’s created, and she plops you down right in the middle of the world.  By and large, her books are not enormously long on plot, and this is fine as long as you think her world is interesting, and you continue to think it’s interesting.  Dragonhaven, I did not enjoy.  I have never been a big fan of dragons anyway.  But Sunshine, now – the world of Sunshine was all desserts and shiny sharp edges.  When plot wasn’t happening, I was happy just wandering around in Sunshine’s world.

I do not like honey.  Because it’s sticky, and I am tactile-defensive.  I don’t like sticky things or greasy things – when it comes time to clean a butter dish, I’d just as soon buy a new butter dish.  If there were honey dishes, I’d have the same issue.  I’m shuddering thinking about cleaning a honey dish.  Chalice came out ages ago, and I never read it because I don’t like honey.

Chalice is about a girl called Marisol with bees who makes honey.  Following a cataclysmic event that leaves the current Master of the land and his second-in-command, the Chalice, dead, Marisol is chosen by the earthlines as the new Chalice.  Uncertain of herself, trying to teach herself all the rituals she needs to know as Chalice, she is put further off balance when the new Master is named.  Brother of the old Master, he was sent to the priests of Fire, and after seven years is no longer quite human.

Overall, it was better than Dragonhaven, not quite as good as Deerskin, and not within miles of Beauty or Sunshine.  The world was interesting, with the rituals and the magic, but the characters didn’t have much to do throughout the book, up until the anticlimactic, rather too tidy final conflict scene.  If I had to put my finger on a problem, I’d say it was that Marisol was too isolated for too much of the book.  Not just that she had very few allies, but that she had very few interactions with anyone at all, and that made her difficult to know.

I am very full of food right now.

Here is what other people thought, and if I missed your link tell me! and I will add it:

DogEar Diary
Angieville
Em’s Bookshelf
Charlotte’s Library
bookshelves of doom
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Andrea’s Book Nook

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley

It was full dark….I knew he could see in the dark; I knew vampires can smell live blood….No, I thought.  That hardly matters.  He isn’t going to forget about me any more than I am going to forget about him, even if I can’t see or hear him – even if I’ve got so used to the vampire smell I’m not noticing it any more.  Which just made it worse.  I thought I would have to see him cross the gray rectangle between him and me – I was pretty sure his chain wasn’t long enough to let him go round – I knew I wouldn’t hear him.  But…I hadn’t seen him drink either.  I bit down on my lips.  I wasn’t going to cry, and I wasn’t going to scream…

And speaking of non-trashy vampire books, I give you Sunshine, by Robin McKinley.  The eponymous Sunshine, baker at a local coffeehouse, gets abducted by vampires for nefarious purposes I won’t go into here, and what with one thing and another, she gets sort of sucked in (ho, ho, ho) to some goings-on in the vampire world, and it’s tricky for her because in fact she would sort of prefer to be a coffeehouse baker.  Rather than Defeating Evil.  And there are some desserts and a vampire of much greater elegance and better mastery of language than Edward of Twilight.

As I say, a non-trashy vampire book, though reading the trashy one and watching Dark Shadows (best show ever, by the way, with Lt. Nathan Forbes (Joe in the present day) as the absolute best character on there, though we like Carolyn quite a lot too) did have a lot to do with the timing of me rereading this one.  I’ve not read it in ages, actually – the first time was on one of our “camping trips”, where we basically make a ton of food and eat it over the weekend while the more adventurous of us go hiking or boating and the lazier of us (this always includes me) sit home and read things.  Sunshine was an excellent find, definitely better in quality than this past year’s major book undertaking, which was Forever Amber (and also Purple Hibiscus and Cordelia Underwood, but those took up much less of my time and emotional involvement).

What I would say about this book is that it leaves you still wondering about a lot of things.  A lot of things.  And some of them are good things to wonder about, like, Why is Constantine such a cool name, and why is the world so constructed that it would be unacceptable for me to name my kid Constantine?, but some of them are things you don’t want to be wondering about at the end of a book, like, What’s the damn difference between Con and Bo anyway (apart from the obvious nice/mean distinction)?

However, I find upon rereading that these are less frantically crucial issues than I thought they were last time I read the book.  Last time I finished it and I was like, Well for Christ’s sake thanks for nothing! and I was particularly cross, may I just say, about not finding out anything interesting about the goddess of pain.   Actually I’m still a little cross about that.  But this latest rereading, which as I say is a good long while on from when I read it last, has made me feel better about the general construction of the book and advancement of the plot.

There is definitely that thing that Robin McKinley is prone to, where she has to describe the way people are feeling and the entire background story to a remark someone’s about to make/just finished making, in unreal amounts of detail.  She sometimes sacrifices the plot for this (see: Dragon Haven (but not really, I read it before I started this website)), but not in the case of Sunshine.  It is occasionally too much but mostly quite interesting because hey! vampires!

So I vote yes to this book.  Indeed I would say her best since Beauty.  Though Deerskin was also quite good.