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 4

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

With all the fuss involving my non-existent dsl connection and ATT tech support, I completely forgot to post my response to Wildwood Dancing. A fault that I will not rectify 🙂

After reading Daughter of the Forest, I became hooked on Marillier’s works. Her prose and lore is wonderfully original and absorbing, and Wildwood Dancing does not disappoint in this regard.

Based on a number of fairy tales and legends, most notably the Twelve Dancing Princesses, The Frog Prince, and the Romanian legend of the Night People, Wildwood Dancing plays on the traditional coming-of-age theme, so prevalent in young adult novels, while establishing a lore of its own.

Five sisters, Tati, Jena, Paula, Iulia, and Stela are left in the care of their aunt and uncle when their merchant father’s failing health forces him to seek a more temperate clime for the winter. Jena, the cleverest, is left in charge of the estate and family business, but soon finds her position challenged by her cousin Cezar, who thinks it unseemly that Jena and her sisters are granted such freedom and encouraged in their educational endeavors. It doesn’t help that Cezar also abhors all mention of magic, while the girls revel in secret moonlight gatherings with the local faerie court. Adding to the tension, Jena suspects that there is more to Cezar’s attention than mere cousinly concern. Life at Piscu Dracului soon becomes complicated when the past comes back to haunt Cezar and the possibility of a future marked by their cousin’s domineering presence puts the girls’ safety at odds with their beliefs and desires. With her faithful frog, Gogu, in tow, Jena sets out to make things right, even if it means facing the unseen dangers of the forest and its magical denizen. Magic, love, and courage make this a must read fairy tale.

Wildwood Dancing is a slim volume that leaves you wanting more and wondering what Marillier more could have done if the novel had been written for an adult audience. Jena and her sisters are highly individual and, though the action focuses on Jena and Tati, none of the girls become lost in the background. Each of the sisters could have a story of their own, given their unique traits and wants. The threat of Cezar’s bitterness and fear-induced hatred of all things related to the Other Kingdom threatens each girl in her own way, and adds to the sense of desperation and isolation felt by the girls as they are cut off from society as a result of their cousin’s effort to control their lives.

Several subplots are combined to produce a story that is more than its parts. This is not merely a retelling of a single fairy tale, but an entirely new one. The elements of the Frog Prince are no more significant than those of the vampire legend, each supports and develops the plot as a whole. The novel also plays on the notion that desire can have a profound effect on life, no matter how off-handedly a wish might be made. Much of the relationship between Jena and Cezar [and Gogu] is based on a single moment when she and her cousin[s] were asked to request their heart’s desire. While the power of choice is linked to magic in the novel, the consequences of envy, anger, and desire are intensely human.

Wildwood Dancing is an incredibly thought-provoking novel that touches on issues of choice, self, feminism, magic, and more, and I feel this is a highly inadequate representation of it. Seriously, my summary does not even scratch the surface. As a young adult novel, it remains young in its treatment of these issues, but does not disappoint for all that. It’s just the sort of strong girl fairy tale that I love.

According to my searching, there is a sequel that I will soon be seeking.

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.