Summer of YA – Part 5 (and probably the last)

Pegasus by Robin McKinley

*Waaaah!* Where has my summer gone? I never got to finish going through my self-appointed summer reading list :(. Now the remaining books are just part of the ol’ TBR stack. I sure miss the days when summer reading meant  lying around all summer doing nothing but reading. Enjoy it while you can, kids, because adulthood will destroy your summertime dreams.

So I’m wrapping up this segment with a quick review of Robin McKinley’s Pegasus or, as I like to think of it, the first half of a great story waiting to be revealed.

In its simplest form, Pegasus tells the tale of the special bond between Sylvi, princess of Balsinland, and Ebon, her pegasi soul-mate. But there is always more to McKinley’s narratives than a simple tale of friendship. There are obstacles! Mysteries! Dangerous magics! And so much world-building that the story almost falls flat when you get to the end and realize you’ve been building up to the worst cliff-hanging, middle-of the-story, what-happens-next?! conclusion. I know there must be a perfectly logical reason the publishers decided this novel needed to be split into two parts, but I cannot imagine what this can be. After learning all about the history of the treaty between the pegasi and human kingdoms, their bonds, the difficulties arising from their inability to communicate effectively, and the unique magic of the pegasi’s memory caves, I was finally starting to get into the story, the action was building, and then it just ends. I almost wish I had waited for the second part before reading Pegasus, then I might be able to respond to it as a complete work.

Yes, this is a great story if you enjoy reading about extremely detailed fantasy realms that feature languages all their own. If you’re not into that kind of narrative, or are not already a McKinley fan, I would not recommend starting with this one (at least, not until the second part is published). Try The Hero and the Crown instead. I love McKinley’s novels but this was a hard one for me to get through.

Summer of YA – Part 2

Deerskin by Robin McKinley

This post will probably contain spoilers, but there is no way to write a reaction/review/discussion on Deerskin without mentioning a few key points. Readers have been warned.

I love Robin McKinley and read every one of her books with a voracious appetite the moment I get them into my hands. That said, I was wary about Deerskin. Not because I doubted that it would be a wonderful bit of storytelling, but because of the subject matter. Deerskin opens with an author’s note:

There is a story by Charles Perrault called Donkeyskin which, because of its subject matter, is often not included in collections of Perrault’s fairy tales. Or, if it does appear, it does so in a bowdlerized state. The original Donkeyskin is where Deerskin began.

Donkeyskin is a troubling fairy tale (read a copy of it here or a synopsis on the wikis) involving a princess’s despair as she tries to save herself from her father’s unnatural desire to marry her. With the aid of a fairy godmother, the princess runs away and conceals herself in a donkeyskin before finding her happy ever after. McKinley’s retelling, as always, adds depth and narrative to a straightforward, if complicated tale.

That’s part of what I was afraid of… to create a fully realized narrative, McKinley explores themes, such as child neglect, incest, rape, violence against women and animals, and deadly despair, that make for a dark, often disturbing tale. The threat of incest in Donkeyskin is fully realized in Deerskin in a scene that is surreal and dreamlike, but no less horrifying for this. Violence and rape are two elements that I often avoid in my reading selections–not because I want to censor my reading experience, but because I find these all too real and hate the idea of anyone being victimized in such a manner, even a fictional character.

Deerskin tells the tale of Princess Lissla Lissar, whose mother is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms and whose father won the hand of this woman by accomplishing the most magnificent, impossible feats. Lissar grows up on stories about her extraordinary mother and father, but is rarely tolerated in their presence for more than a few minutes at royal events. Alone with her nursemaid, the princess does not know how to name the relationship she has with her parents, but knows it is not entirely right. As she grows, the Princess fails to fit in among her courtiers, her untrained manner disappointing those who would wish to curry favor with her father and mother. When her mother’s health begins to falter under a mystery ailment, the princess does not know what to feel. Instead, she waits. When the queen orders a portrait to be made of her as she was in her former glory, the king gives in to her wish but begins to go mad with the idea of her dying. When the queen orders the king to remarry after her death, but only to one as magnificent as she, Lissar’s fate is sealed by the curse of her mother’s final request.

The king becomes a madman and vows to marry his daughter, who refuses but does not know how to escape his will. The rest is a violent, bloody encounter that nearly destroys Lissar, who is only saved by her love for Ash, the dog she received as a gift from a foreign prince.

The experience of rape and Lissar’s subsequent quest to save herself, if only for Ash’s sake, are imbued with a sense of urgency and dignity. No time is spent dwelling on the details of Lissar’s victimization, but the idea off its horror is clear. Lissar’s bravery in fighting for Ash’s safety and trying to stop her father from killing her dog and hurting her reveal a side to her character that was not present during her time as a sheltered princess. It lays the foundation for the strong, if haunted woman she becomes in years that follow her escape.

Despite the darkness that marks much of Lissar’s inward narrative, there is a sense of hope and magic behind the story. Adapting the idea of the fairy godmother, McKinley introduces a moon goddess figure, a protector of the weak that intercedes on Lissar’s behalf just when she is about to falter and saves her, offering her salvation by granting her the time she needs to come to terms with the terrible things that happened to her and Ash.

Lissar becomes Deerskin, a goddess-like figure herself, and finds a place where she can thrive among people who accept her without asking questions. There is love and friendship and peace, and Lissar finds herself in a way that is not always idyllic but which earns her respect and acceptance and her own happy ever after, on her terms and no one else’s.

It is a beautiful novel that explores salvation and liberation even as it presents the more troubling elements of rape and violence. These are treated with care and dignity, just as Lissar is treated with respect and honor by her would-be lover upon learning of her past.

more than a pretty face

rillaI did it! After putting it off for years, I finally finished all the Anne books. I have to admit, the books about Anne’s children just do not interest me as much as the books about Anne herself, but I really wanted to get through the whole series. A couple of weeks ago, I sat down and started reading Rilla of Ingleside, and while it wasn’t the most interesting volume in the series, it was alright.

Unlike Anne, Rilla has no ambition to speak of and does not feel ashamed to admit it. She just wants to be pretty and have fun. A little vain and a little proud, Rilla is nonetheless a very loyal sister and friend. At 15, Rilla has nothing on her mind but enjoying herself at her first dance, and that pesky war is not going to ruin her evening.

But when the war truly breaks out and Canada is called upon to send her troops, Rilla finds that there’s more to life than worrying about your lisp when a handsome boy takes you for a moonlit walk.

Like Anne, Rilla is a full of heart and makes the best of any situation. When her brothers leave for Europe to fight, Rilla is left to wait and comfort her mother, but she does not do so with her hands crossed. Though she wants nothing more than to be the wife of Kenneth Ford when he returns from the battlefront, Rilla grows and matures into a capable young woman.

Like many of L.M. Montgomery’s stories, the book is a bit preachy in parts, but the anxiety and terror brought on by the war serves to balance the many references to the divine. Rilla’s story is interesting as an account of the lives of women left at home during WWI. She experiences loss and grief but stands firm to support those she loves, even when the other girls call her cold.

Overall, I liked the book, but I could have done without some of the passages about the Glen St. Mary crowd.

hedgeAfter I finished Rilla, I told myself that I would also finish Robin McKinley’s The Door in the Hedge.

I started this four story collection of fairy tale retellings a few months ago, but didn’t get around to reading the final story until yesterday.

McKinley’s second published book, the collection includes “The Stolen Princess,” “The Princess and the Frog,” “The Hunting of the Hind,” and “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”. The characters in the stories are often unnamed, identified by their descriptions and titles and representing the sort of archetypal personalities often featured in traditional fairy tales.

Of the four stories, I enjoyed “The Hunting of the Hind” most of all, but though I like fairy tales, I prefer McKinley’s novels. The stories almost feel incomplete, which might explain why McKinley often notes that her stories have a tendency to turn into full-length novels when she starts to work on a short story collection. The descriptions are lush and airy, almost dreamlike, but I prefer a bit more depth.

That said, I still want to check out Water, and McKinley’s latest addition to the elementals story series, Fire.

a touch of honey and fire

I’m not exactly sure how I feel about Robin McKinley’s latest book, Chalice. On her blog, McKinley explains that, like Dragonhaven, Chalice started out as an attempt to write a Fire story for the second in the Elementals series that she co-writes with her husband and fellow writer, Peter Dickinson.

When I started Chalice, I had high hopes. I was unable to finish Dragonhaven–partly because I could not connect with the young male narrator’s non-stop whining, and partly because the dragon theme did not work for me in the way that The Hero and the Crown‘s dragon theme did.

I did not have such a problem with Chalice, Mirasol’s story is classic McKinley–the young heroine experiences a life-altering moment and finds a sense of empowerment that allows her to overcome a series of trials.

However, the story seems a little too familiar. At times, Chalice seems almost a less-developed version of Rose Daughter with beekeeping replacing the gardening motif. Mirasol struggles to adapt to the role that she must play as Chalice, but her development is not as satisfying as Beauty’s.

Or, perhaps I have just become too attached to Rose Daughter.