Archive for the ‘Robin McKinley’ Category

shadows robin mckinleyShadows by Robin McKinley ~ 2013. This edition: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin), 2013. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-399-16579-5. 356 pages.

My rating: 4/10

I wasn’t going to talk about this book, but then I thought, yes, I have to, because I need to add it to my just-published Most Disappointing Reads of 2013 list. Which is utterly depressing, because I wanted it to be at least good enough to bring back some of my admiration for this can-be-marvelous writer. This is the woman who crafted The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword and Beauty (the first one) and, yes, Sunshine, all of which are gorgeous young adult works with cross-generational appeal set in meticulously detailed alternate worlds.

Shadows tries to get there too, but along the way it crashes and burns, and not in a spectacular blaze but just with a damp, smoky fizzle. What a sloppy book. I am most unhappy about it. So there may be spoilers coming below, because I’m feeling sulky and disappointed and cranky.

From the flyleaf:

The story starts like something out of a fairy tale: I hated my stepfather.

It’s usually stepmothers in fairy tales. Well, equal time for stepfathers.

Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. It’s not only that he’s from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows that follow him around? And why is her dog not bothered by them?

Newworld is all about science – you’re expected to give up fairy tales as soon as you’re old enough to read them for yourself – and magic is illegal. In Newworld the magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago – mostly. Maggie’s best friend Jill has some foresight, and Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago.

Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know . . . until events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage…

So Maggie despises her new stepfather, and shuns his every good-natured attempt to make friends. He’s a weirdly dressed, odd-looking immigrant with a funny accent from a pseudo-Balkan country in Oldworld, where magic is still practised, and even though he has to have been certified “clean” to be allowed to immigrate to Newworld, those multi-legged, wavering, ever-changing, elusive shadows which no one but Maggie seems to be aware of put her off in a huge way. And no matter how happy Val makes Maggie’s widowed mother, Maggie finds it totally, like, pathetic.

Maggie rolls her eyes at the grown-ups in her life and putters along doing typical teenage girl things. Like struggling with algebra, and dodging creepy teachers, and hanging with her friends, and making eyes at the hot new guy at the local pizza joint. Not to mention making super-intricate origami, working at the local animal shelter, and training her amazing-super-fabulous border collie, and monologuing on in über-detail about all of the above.

The first person narration in this gushing fairy tale is so breathless and run-on and stream-of-consciousness discuss-every-nuance (except the really important stuff which might clue the reader in to what the heck the implications actually are of cobeys and silverbugs and what the government guys do with people who practise magic) that when big bad stuff starts to happen I was pretty jaded already. (See, the writing style is catching!)

So anyway, our heroine is a super duper animal lover with amazing communicative abilities regarding the four-legged creatures of her world, which is convenient when she needs to start figuring out the canine elements of Val’s shadows, which suddenly want to get up close and personal with her, and the werewolf tendencies of her old school chum Takahiro.

With the help of her little group of human friends and the imported Oldworld shadows and a whole bunch of animal pals, not to mention her magical algebra book (which is yet another thing never explained at all which I found deeply annoying), Maggie knits up a few bulges of magic trying to break through into Newworld, rescues Val (who is suddenly a good guy, all “creepiness” forgiven) from the bad government guys who have seized him and chained him up in an abandoned army base conveniently staffed only by a few friendly neighbourhood watch-type guards, and they all make it to the family safe haven (“mysteriously” called “Haven”) where everything will be sure to be sorted out, because wow! – Val and Mom and the aunties are all still chock full of magical powers which they’ve cleverly masked from the Newworld government scanners.  Oh, and Maggie finds love. Cute, cuddly, teenage love. Blush, blush.

I can only speculate that this is aimed strictly at the teen girl market, though the family teen girl whose Christmas present this was quit part way through in disgust. “Confusing, and not in a good way. Too much super-girl with the awesome dog training powers – we get it already. And the slang is so contrived and annoying. This is unrelatable. Where’s my new Maggie Stiefvater?”

I plugged through to the end, and though it picked up steam for a bit in the middle, it got tiresome again well before then end, and all I could think was, “Oh, Robin McKinley. Why?”

And where was your editorial advisor when you sent in this apparent first draft which made it into print?

If tightened up this could have been much, much better. In this reader’s opinion. Because I know what Robin McKinley can do; the proof is on the favourites bookshelf.

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the door in the hedge robin mckinleyThe Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley ~ 1981. This edition: Firebird (Penguin), 2003. Softcover. ISBN: 0-698-11960-6. 216 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10.

Nudged on by a comment from Jenny (of the former Jenny’s Books, now all spiffed up and better than ever at Reading the End) on my yesterday’s post about Robin McKinley’s later book of short stories, A Knot in the Grain(1994),  I temporarily sidelined (again!) the Agatha Christie (The Murder on the Links) that I was sporadically reading and settled down to a power read of The Door in the Hedge instead.

I knew I’d read this collection of four short fantasy-fairy tale retellings before, but I honestly could not drag up any strong memories regarding it, just that I had mentally filed it in the “wordy” category of McKinley’s writings. And this re-reading proved me right on that count, though I was pleasantly surprised to find that the two stories Jenny liked the most, The Princess and the Frog, and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, were really pretty darned good, and my own favourites of the collection, too.

This was Robin McKinley’s second published work, after her very well-received first novel, Beauty (1978), which was a creative retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. The four stories in The Door in the Hedge follow that same pattern, though two of the stories are touted as original creations, versus re-imaginings.

The Stolen Princess

The last mortal kingdom before the unmeasured sweep of Faerieland begins has at best held an uneasy truce with its unpredictable neighbour…

And that uneasy truce is occasionally broken, with the abduction of the occasional child; a rare occurrence, indeed, but frequent enough to be always a nagging “maybe” in the minds of all parents. The faeries (for it must be them) are most interested in baby boys from birth till their first birthday, and in teenage girls in the first flower of blossoming womanhood, between the ages of sixteen and nineteen or so. And they always take the best: the most perfectly formed, the beautiful, the kind, the accomplished,  the wise. Who are never, ever, seen again…

So when the beloved king and queen of the mortal country produce a lovely princess, we just know that this is not going to end well. The princess is predictably spirited away on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, but this time, instead of just casting up hands and sighing forlornly, as this fantastical country’s parents are wont to do in these circumstances, the royal couple set off in pursuit, seeking to find the elusive boundary between the two realms, which, of course, proves to be the titular “door in the hedge”.

A not particularly original “original” tale; seriously overwritten in places, and with an overwhelmingly sweet ending, with every conceivable loose end neatly tied up.

The writing has moments of originality and great readability; the characters are quite genuinely likeable as well as being too beautiful, kind, gifted, nice, etc. for words, but the whole package oversteps my personal tolerance for tis kind of thing. On a scale of 1 to 10, I fear this one gets only an unenthusiastic 4 from me.

The Princess and the Frog

The princess in this case loses a terrible gift from a sinister suitor; a necklace of cloudy grey stones which emanates an awful power. She is afraid to admit she has dropped it in the garden pool; who knows what consequences her carelessness will bring?

She knelt at the edge of the pool and looked in; but while the water seemed clear, and the sunlight penetrated a long way, still she could not see the bottom, but only a misty greyness that drowned at last to utter black…

What a grand contrast this piece is to the first. This is a retelling of the well-known tale in which the young princess loses her golden ball, and then reluctantly adopts the helpful frog as a companion. In this version the princess is older, and she loses something much more crucial; the frog is welcomed with gratitude after his assistance, and the complexities of the scenario are rather more interesting than the usual morality tale about always keeping promises which the original is too often preachily presented as.

The helpful frog has a sense of humour; the princess is the antithesis of the spoiled little rich girl she is usually portrayed as; the suitor is gorgeously wicked; the denouement is absolutely predictable but yet with an element of surprise in the instinctive cleverness of the princess.

Well done, Robin McKinley. I hereby award this story a very respectable 9/10.

The Hunting of the Hind

This is the second “original” tale in the collection; “original” is in quotation marks because it contains strong traditional elements, though Robin McKinley has put together a story that goes in its own direction.

Here we have a beloved prince who becomes infatuated with a quest to follow and confront a beautiful golden deer which appears suddenly to hunting parties. The catch here is that every time someone rides off in pursuit, he comes home disappointed and forever marked by his pursuit; an deep depression descends upon him and he is never the same. Several men have nor returned; the worst is assumed.

The prince follows the deer, comes home raving, and slides into a feared-to-be-fatal decline. His younger half-sister, the kingdom’s neglected princess, then goes off on her own quest to solve the mystery, and to save her brother’s life.

I don’t think it will be a spoiler to mention that of course she succeeds.

This was the weakest tale of the four, to my mind. The characters never came to life; their actions are clumsily presented and then glossed over, and much is asked of the reader in order to accept the progress of the narrative; it never really worked for me. Too many “glowing eyes” and “tall stallions” and (not really explained) “malicious spells” and a weird (and also unexplained) laying on of hands “empty your mind” thing going on at the dramatic climax. The magical happy ending inspired not a contented smile, but a desire to violently chuck the book into the nearest waste receptacle.

This one gets a 3.5/10. It had a certain early promise in the storyline, but it went way past my personal tolerance level for unexplained fantasy magic. And it was, as my daughter would say, way too mooshy at the end.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses

What a relief to turn to the last story, a retelling of the old fairy tale of the same name. In this one, Robin McKinley redeems herself after the overblown slosh of the Golden Hind thing, by presenting an extremely likeable, slightly cynical, tired old soldier as her hero. I loved this guy; he did everything right, for all the right reasons.

We never get to really know the princesses in question, aside from little glances now and again, but the story is so nicely presented that it doesn’t really matter. There is also a cloak of invisibility which has almost as much character as the hero it hides. Here’s the bit where the soldier and the cloak come together, after a predictable good deed to a typically important (in fairy tale world) innocuous-seeming old crone.

“Wait a moment,” said the old woman; and he waited, gladly. She walked – swiftly, for a woman so old and weak that she had trouble drawing up her bucket from the well – the few steps to her cottage, and disappeared within. She was gone long enough that the soldier began to feel foolish for his sudden hope that she was a wise woman after all and would assist him. “Probably she is gone to find my some keepsake trinket, a clay dog, a luck charm made from birds’ feathers that she has not seen in years and has forgotten where it lies,” he said to himself. “But perhaps she will give me bread and cheese for what she has eaten of mine; for cities, I believe, are not often friendly to a poor wanderer.”

But it was none of these things she held in her hands when she returned to him. It was, instead, a cape…”(W)oven of the shadows that hide the hare from the fox, the mouse from the hawk, and the lovers from those who would forbid their love…”

Along with the cloak the crone proffers some useful advice; the soldier files it away in his shrewd mind, and it serves him in good stead once he is locked in the bedchamber with the his king’s twelve daughters, and as he follows them to their sinister dancing floor…

Nicely done. This one rates an approving 8.5/10.

*****

Judging this collection against A Knot in the Grain, I have to admit that I personally liked the later collection better. It was a bit more astringent, and way more “clean” – in an editorial way – tighter and better edited; the writing overall was more assured, and the writer’s unique voice much more developed. And, much as I often find Robin McKinley’s writing a little too over-the-top and descriptively overwritten, I do find it interesting and admirable that she has continued to develop her style as the years go on, and to experiment with new ideas, some of which (ahem – Sunshineabsolutely loved that one, the anti-Twilight vampire novel) work out very well indeed.

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a knot in the grain robin mckinleyA Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley ~ 1994. This edition: Harper Trophy, 1995. Softcover. ISBN: 0-06-44064-0. 192 pages.

My rating: 8/10, with the aside that these five short stories are über-fantasy-romantic, perhaps a tiny bit too fantastical for anyone past the age of about, oh, probably 13 or so.

Or maybe not. For anyone, teen to adult, this is total escape lit. Especially nice if you’ve already spent time in Damar.

I seriously love the cover illustration on this one, all romantically Burne-Jonesy. It’s by someone named Bryan Leister, and kudos to him, because it is perfect.

This is a collection of five short stories, three of which were previously published in other anthologies. Two are obviously set in the alternative-reality world Damar of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, two more are set in an unnamed alternative world, which could be Damar, and the last is set in the “real” world, in contemporary times. All feature completely sympathetic, strong female characters, and their male counterparts.

The Healer (1982)

The child was born just as the first faint rays of dawn made their way through the cracks between the shutters. The lantern-wick burned low. The new father bowed his head over his wife’s hands as the midwife smiled at the mite of humanity in her arms. Black curls framed the tiny face; the child gave a gasp of shock, then filled its lungs for its first cry in this world; but when the little mouth opened, no sound came out. The midwife tightened her hands on the warm wet skin as the baby gave a sudden writhe, and closed its mouth as if it knew that it had failed at something expected of it. Then the eyes stared up into the midwife’s own, black, and clearer than a newborn’s should be, and deep in them such a look of sorrow that tears rose in the midwife’s own eyes.

The baby, Lily, has been born without a voice, but she has another trait that more than makes up for that lack, at least in the eyes of the world: the gift of healing. Lily grows up beloved of her parents and ever-increasing siblings, and at the age of twelve she becomes apprentice to the midwife who was present at her birth. The two live together in love and harmony, until one day, when Lily is twenty, and she encounters a mysterious stranger on the road who can communicate with her mind-to-mind, without spoken words. Turns out that Sahath is an ex-mage, a once-accomplished master of the arcane arts, who has inexplicably lost most of his powers. One thing leads to another, and soon Lily and Sahath are sharing not just unspoken conversations but shyly blushing glances. And when Sahath puts forward the suggestion that perhaps his old mage-master could help Lily find her lost voice, the resulting journey to the mountain lake of the mysterious Luthe (yes, fellow Damar fans, that Luthe) brings all sorts of potentials to fruition.

The Stagman (1984)

She grew up in her uncle’s shadow, for her uncle was made Regent when her father was placed beside her mother in the royal tomb. Her uncle was a cold, proud man, who, because he chose to wear plain clothing and to eat simple food, claimed that he was not interested in worldly things, but this was not so…

The princess grows up under the oppressive shadow of her quietly malicious uncle, until, on her name day, when she is to be declared queen, she is instead offered as a living sacrifice to the mysterious Stagman, half-man, half-deer, who has been summoned forth by the Regent’s magicings in a swirl of ominous storms. The people of the kingdom raise no objection to the sacrifice of their princess; it is well known that she is a poor thing, of weak mind, for has not the Regent himself tried his hardest to educate her, without notable success? Into the cave then goes the maiden, to be chained to the stone wall to await her sacrificial fate. But things don’t go quite as the Regent has planned…

Luthe reappears in this story, offering succour to the Princess Ruen, unnamed until the end of her desperate journey to the inevitable mountain lake.

Touk’s House (1985)

In the best fairy tale tradition, a woodcutter steals into a witch’s garden for herbs to save his beloved youngest daughter’s life, is caught, and forfeits his next child to the witch, who claims she wants an apprentice to pass along her herb lore to. And then, still in best fairy tale tradition, things do not turn out as one would anticipate. For starters, the child in question, young Erana, has absolutely no aptitude for messing about with plants…

That’s all I’m going to say about this one; it is quite delightful, and my favourite story of the five in this book. You’ll just need to read it for yourself! (And, one more thing, because it’s by Robin McKinley – you probably don’t need me to tell you this – but it predictably morphs into a love story.)

Buttercups (1994)

There was an old farmer who married a young wife…

… but contrary to predictions, all goes well. At least until the farmer’s curiosity arouses a sleeping power emanating from Buttercup Hill…

A lovely story of a May-December romance, with two genuinely good people at its heart. A rather unusual story, this one, which doesn’t turn to tragedy as it so easily might in another author’s hands.

A Knot in the Grain (1994)

The last story in the collection returns from not-quite-here lands to contemporary times. High school student Annabelle reluctantly accompanies her family to their new home in a quiet New England town. She’s left all of her lifelong friends behind, and is having a hard time finding her new groove. Spending her summer visiting the library and rereading childhood favourites (thus giving the author a nice venue for mentioning her own favourites, from E. Nesbit to Mary Norton to Diana Wynne Jones, with a tiny shameless plug for McKinley’s partner, fellow author Peter Dickinson – I admit I chuckled a bit at that one, though I’m not much of a Dickinson fan) Annabelle is just plain ready for something to happen.

Which it does. One day, while staring at the ceiling in her attic hideaway, Annabelle notices an interesting knot in the wooden beam, which turns out to be the key to a hidden staircase, and another room. And in the room Annabelle finds a box. A box full of… well, I can’t tell you. (Nor can Annabelle.) But interesting things transpire, in a low-key sort of way.

A cute story, with a very likeable bunch of teenagers, including our heroine. Very nice. Just a titch too good to be true, though? (Says Inner Cynic.) Well, nice is a legitimate state of being, too…

*****

I feel like I should say something to sum up this collection. It’s a competently written group of stories, and very typical of the author’s early work, before she got into the edgier, darker, more adult realms of Deerskin and Sunshine. These fairy tales are aimed at the young teen reader and up, and the first four are strongly tinted with the veiled eroticism which is present in all of her longer novels. These heroines definitely all have hidden depths, and their male counterparts tend to be of the smoldering passion, glance-full-of-meaning type. Nothing to make one even blush, but it’s definitely there.

All in all, there’s not much to criticize. No masterpieces here, but it definitely should be on the shelf of every McKinley fan. I find myself rereading this one every so often; one day I’ll replace my battered ex-library paperback discard with a better, preferably hardcover copy. So – probably a recommendation, if you need it!

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Sunshine by Robin McKinley ~ 2003. This edition: Penguin Speak, 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-0-14-241110-0. 405 pages.

My rating: 8/10. Points lost because it tends to ramble; points added because the author unapologetically lets herself go on rambling! And because the vampires perish messily and satisfactorily in sunlight. My son and I, both McKinley aficionados, like to refer to this one as the “anti-Twilight” – no sparkling vampires here, though Sunshine’s heroine gets all silly about her undead crush occasionally, which we agreed was one of our our biggest objections to Twilight – Bella’s sheer stupidity regarding the worst choice ever for boyfriend material. (That, and the terrible writing. And the sparkling.) But, as usual, I digress.

Ah, Robin McKinley. Something of a comfort read author for me, ever since I first read the Damar stories, The Blue Sword(1982) and The Hero and the Crown(1985) quite a few years ago. I have lost track of the number of times I have now read these two books, and I’ve also read everything else she’s ever produced with varying degrees of enthusiasm, with the lone exception of her 2010 novel, Pegasus. I might be losing a bit of my enthusiasm for McKinley’s more recent stuff; her editors are letting her spread herself out a bit too much, the drawback to being such a huge bestseller-producer;  too many times quantity becomes confused with quality, when what they really need to do is refine, cut, and tighten things up. (Someday I will share my opinions on J.K. Rowling and the later Harry Potter books…)

The internet abounds in reviews of all of McKinley’s works; Sunshine is no exception. If you want to see a various range of opinions, just check out the Goodreads page: Goodreads – Sunshine by Robin McKinley  Over 2000 reviews! So I don’t think I need to add to this in any substantial way.

McKinley creates an interesting alternative world to Earth as we know it; she uses much of what we are already familiar with and tweaks it just enough to keep us paying attention – a technique she uses in all of her novels. Her heroine is a bit of a loner and a social misfit – no surprises here – and she also owes some unsuspected abilities to her ancestral bloodlines, which no one has seen fit to tell her about, leaving her to discover her powers for herself. Again, very much a McKinley trademark. The setting is almost dystopian, but people have adapted to the new, post-apocalyptic normal, and go about their business for the most part cheerfully and optimisically, which is something else I like about this tale.

The first time I read Sunshine I was totally engrossed – it was a “stay up till it’s finished” enterprise; this week’s reading was my third, and I am now seeing flaws and tweakable bits here and there, but all in all the story is holding its own.

A heads-up to those familiar with McKinley’s earlier “young adult” novels. Sunshine has lots of sex, some of it graphic. Probably best for the older teenage crowd, and of course McKinley’s legions of adult fans. Oh, and lots of blood. And chocolate! Kind of a weird book, in retrospect. But I’m still a fan.

The cover at the top is from the latest edition, obviously aimed at the teen girl market. I much prefer the original cover art, which I’ve included here as well.

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