Books

Short works

Books : reviews

Robin McKinley.
Beauty.
1978

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 11 April 1999

The classic fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, retold in Robin McKinley's charming style.

McKinley gives an interesting twist on many of the story's features. For example: 'Beauty' is the bookish protagonist's childhood nickname, she is actually rather plain, and her real name is Honour. [When I first read the story, 20 years ago, the name Honour had fewer resonances for me than it does on re-reading it today]. Also, her sisters, Grace and Hope, ask their father to bring back jewels from his trip only as a joke; they are actually both nice people.

We get the story of the family's life before they encounter the Beast, and enough description of Beauty's time with the Beast that we understand why she could have fallen in love. The enchanted invisible ladies-in-waiting, with their matter-of-fact private conversations, who keep trying to force Beauty to wear over-glamorous clothes, are a perfect touch. And I would love to visit Beast's library, with all the books in the world, including the ones that haven't been written yet!

My only complaint is that the ending feels a little rushed: the rest of the standard tale is bulked out well, and I would have liked the events after the Beast's transformation to have been similarly expanded and deepened. But if my only complaint is that the story is too short, I suppose that can be taken as a compliment.

Robin McKinley.
The Door in the Hedge.
1981

rating : 3.5 : worth reading

A retelling of four fairy tales

Contents

The Stolen Princess. 1981
The Princess and the Frog. 1981
The Hunting of the Hind. 1981
The Twelve Dancing Princesses. 1981

Robin McKinley, ed.
Imaginary Lands.
Orbit. 1985

rating : 4 : passes the time

Contents

James P. Blaylock. Paper Dragons. 1985
Patricia A. McKillip. The Old Woman and the Storm. 1985
Robert Westall. The Big Rock Candy Mountain. 1985
Peter Dickinson. Flight. 1985
Jane Yolen. Evian Steel. 1985
P. C. Hodgell. Stranger Blood. 1985
Michael de Larrabeiti. The Curse of Igamor. 1985
Joan D. Vinge. Tam Lin. 1985
The Stone Fey. 1985

Robin McKinley.
The Outlaws of Sherwood.
Ace. 1988

rating : 3.5 : worth reading

Robin McKinley.
Deerskin.
Ace. 1993

rating : 3.5 : worth reading

Robin McKinley.
A Knot in the Grain.
HarperTrophy. 1994

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 29 November 1998

Classic fairly tales have the hero or heroine born in poverty or facing some other trial, only to triumph and win the kingdom, the princess, or whatever. But what if that happy ending is not your heart's desire? Here McKinley gives us five touching stories, all written in her beautiful dreamlike prose, that explore this theme, delightfully twisting some of the fairy tale conventions.

Contents

The Healer. 1982
Lily is a Healer, but born without a voice. Sahath is a mage who has lost his powers. Can Luthe cure them both?
The Stagman. 1984
Princess Ruen's Regent Uncle is determined she will never become Queen. So he decides to revive an old tradition of sacrifice. But Luthe and the Stagman interfere with his plans.
Touk's House. 1985
Erana is apprentice and adopted daughter of the witch-woman Maugie, yet finds she has no natural talent for herb-lore. But does Maugie have another reason for wanting her around?
Buttercups. 1994
Coral and Pos seem an oddly matched couple, and there are suspicions that each has married the other for selfish reasons. Not until the trial of Buttercup Hill can their motives be made clear.
A Knot in the Grain. 1994
Annabelle is an ordinary schoolgirl, lonely after she and her parents have moved to a new town. And she doesn't really believe in that box in the attic, does she?

Robin McKinley.
Rose Daughter.
Ace. 1997

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 11 April 1999

Twenty years ago, Robin McKinley presented us with Beauty, a retelling of the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast. Now she has given us another one. (An Author's Note discusses the reasons for two separate retellings, where originally none had been intended.) I must write this review as a comparison, because her other tale is so well known to me.

The underlying plot is the same as before, obviously, but many of the details and emphases have been changed. The main changes are from a fantasy style to a more overt fairy tale style, accompanied by a change from first to third person narration. The enchantment on the castle is more magical: the corridors don't merely rearrange themselves on a day-to-day basis; they change constantly. And the appearance of the things Beauty requests are due to the global enchantment, not to the actions of prosaic individual helpers.

The backstory of the curse on the Beast is given a lot more prominence. Also, the characters are more complex: Beauty's two sisters, here called Lionheart and Jeweltounge (all the characters have 'meaningful' names) are not particularly nice people in the city, but once they move to the country after their father's business collapse, they change for the better (and now they do not ask their father to bring back anything, even as a joke, from his return trip to the city). And the events after the enchantment are broken are rather more complex, too.

The main difference, however, is that McKinley has discovered gardening in the interim, and there is a lot more about roses here. In fact, Beauty, here a gardener, spends most of her time at the Beast's castle in his glasshouse, cultivating his roses. And this is where the story falls down for me. She spends a mere seven enchanted days (seven months pass in the real world) at the castle, most of that time pruning and taking cuttings, not with the Beast. So I got no understanding for why she moved from fearing and pitying the Beast, to falling in love with him.

The book I actually want is a kind of root mean square of Beauty and Rose Daughter: the developing relationship between Beauty and the Beast of the former, along with the increased depth and complexity of the latter. (But I would even more prefer a new book about Damar.)

Robin McKinley.
Spindle's End.
Putnam. 2000

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 2 July 2000

Robin McKinley presents us with another of her wonderful fairy-tale retellings; this time it's Sleeping Beauty.

The evil Pernicia curses the new-born princess on her name-day, that she will die by pricking her finger on a spindle, but the fairy Katriona snatches the baby away to raise her in safe secrecy. So Rosie grows up in the country, not knowing her background, but talking to the animals, becoming friends with the taciturn Smith, and making a name for herself as a plain-spoken horse doctor. Then three months before her fateful twenty-first birthday, she is rediscovered.

The story starts out almost self-consciously in fairy-tale style, but gathers more straightforward fantasy elements as it progresses, as we get to know the various characters better. It has more in common with the style of the early Beauty than of the more recent Rose Daughter, for example.

Cats were often familiars to workers of magic because to anyone used to wrestling with self-willed, wayward, devious magic --- which was what all magic was --- it was rather soothing to have all the same qualities wrapped up in a small, furry, generally attractive bundle that looked more or less the same from day to day and might, if it were in a good mood, sit on your knee and purr. Magic never sat on anybody's knee and purred.

We get all of the fairy tales classic elements -- the fairy godmothers, the curse, the spinning wheel, the castle surrounded by thorns, the wakening kiss -- but with an unexpected twist and surprising rationale for all these elements, told with McKinley's own special combination of dreamlike prose and down-to-earth characters. So, despite it being such a well-known story, these twists add enough complexity, uncertainty and suspense that one is desperate to find out how on earth it can all end happily every after -- for it is a fairy-tale in the end, of course.

Robin McKinley.
Sunshine.
Bantam. 2003

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 13 November 2003

Sunshine was just an ordinary young woman, working in her family's coffee shop, minding her own business, until she went down to the lake one night. Then the vampires caught her, and chained her to a wall, food for one of their kind. She survived, but that turned out to be the least of her worries.

This is beautiful. McKinley's trademark dreamlike prose, used here in a kind of stream of consciousness narrative, gradually paints a picture of an ever-more fantastic world, and a very human protagonist caught up in events out of her control. The vampires, the magic, the cookery -- they are blended together into a seamless whole to produce a wonderfully rich, totally grounded world, full of splendid characters. The tension builds up slowly, until it is almost unbearable, leading to a thrilling denouement, with no certainty about how it is going to be resolved.

There are enough loose ends either for a host of sequels, or to signal that this is just a story in an on-going world. Either way, there is sufficient satisfactory closure to make this an excellent stand-alone story.

Robin McKinley.
Dragonhaven.
Ace. 2007

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 16 December 2008

14-year-old Jake Mendoza is the son of the Director of Smokehill National Park, one of the few dragon sanctuaries on the planet. Few people have ever even seen a dragon, but there are just enough (hated) tourists and (measly) government grants to keep the place running on a shoestring. Then Jake not only sees a dragon: he comes across a dead poacher, and the dying dragon he shot as she was giving birth. Jake rescues the sole surviving dragonlet, a highly illegal action that could land him and the whole National Park in deep trouble if anyone discovered it...

This took me a while to get into, as it is told in a breathless 14-year-old's voice that initially has a lot of texture, and a lot of scene-setting, but not much dragon-action. However, when the action gets going, it does so with a vengeance. The description is marvellous: one really feels the exhaustion, the heat, the Headache, and the rugged beautiful wilderness of the park. The plot developments are great, as the secrets that Jake needs to keep just get bigger and bigger. And it's very disarming when the more implausible events are narrated by someone who says "look, I don't believe it either, but this is what happened".

Robin McKinley.
Chalice.
Ace. 2008

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 21 December 2009

Willowlands' old Master and Chalice were killed in a dreadful fire. Mirasol, lowly beekeeper, has been appointed the new Chalice, second in the Circle governing Willowlands, and is keenly aware of her lack of training for the job. And then the new Master arrives: they younger brother, sent away seven years ago to become a Fire Priest, and now no longer entirely human. They must work together to reassure the landlines, and to foil the Overlord's plans to give the demense to his own man.

This is a fine tale. Unless I missed some well-hidden references, this is an original setting, not a fairy-tale retelling. The background is interesting, and the interplay of Mirasol's landsense, bees and honey is great. The resolution is just a little to easy, but the whole thing is told in McKinley's marvellous dreamy prose style that I could read forever.

Robin McKinley.
Shadows.
Puffin. 2013

My story starts like something out of a fairy tale: I hate my stepfather.

Maggie lives in Newworld, where two generations ago they neutralized the magic gene. But her new stepfather, Val, comes from Oldworld, where they still rely on magic and he’s…different. In fact, the only things stranger than Val are the shadows that follow him everywhere. Weird, dizzying, leaping and lurching shadows.

Maggie is detennined to find out why, and when she meets Casimir, a beautiful boy from Oldworld, she thinks she might be nearing an explanation – until something terrible happens and events spiral beyond their control and all scientific reason.

Suddenly it’s not so clear who can be trusted. Can Maggie and her friends find a truce between magic and science before it’s too late?

Robin McKinley.
The Hero and the Crown.
1985

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 3 August 1998

How Aerin, shunned daughter of a Northern witchwoman and King Arlbeth, becomes great in legend as Aerin Dragon-Killer, and weilder of the Blue Sword Gonturan.

The characters in McKinley's Damar tales are very vivid and well-drawn, yet there is a curiously appealing dreamlike quality to these stories. This is partly due, I suspect, to the sparsity of dialogue, and to the long sentences, each of which develops its theme at some length, but without being convoluted, clumsy, or difficult to read. And also, although some of the characters are petty, and a few downright evil, and the hero suffers in pursuit of her fate, there is no gratuitous nastiness or squalor, which some modern writers would use to add 'realism'. However the effect is achieved, these tales are a delight to read.

Robin McKinley.
The Blue Sword.
1982

rating : 2 : great stuff

How the Outlander Harimad-sol wins the Blue Sword Gonturan, and how her fate is entwined with that of the legendary Lady Aerin.

Robin McKinley.
Pegasus.
Putnam. 2010

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 2 January 2011

The humans and Pegasi, despite communication difficulties, have been allied for over 800 years, and cement that alliance by pairing off their children in a bonding ceremony. So Princess Sylvi, fourth child and only daughter of the human king, has always known she would get a Pegasus bond-friend on her 12th birthday. But when she meets Ebon, they can communicate freely, much to the dismay of some of the human wizards. Sylvi and Ebon need to discover the reason for this dismay.

This shares some features with other McKinley stories. For example, there are resonances with Dragonhaven, in learning to talk to an alien creature (although it's a lot easier here!) whilst avoiding hostile adults. Told from the child's point of view, there are features that are more important to them (the flying) than those important to the adults (the politicking), which puts an interesting slant on things. And McKinley's lovely dreamy prose works wonderfully for describing Sylvi's interactions with the Pegasi and their way of communicating. It's like reading while snuggling down in a gorgeous warm blanket.

As I got close to the end of the book, I was wondering how McKinley was going to tie up the loose ends. But the problems just kept ramping up, to a shattering cliffhanger. Aargh! After searching the Web, I discovered that McKinley started this as a story for Air (good, that's more evidence that there is going to be another volume in that series), but it rapidly grew; in fact it grew so much it became two volumes. So now I must wait until 2012 for the conclusion. Whimper.

Robin McKinley, Peter Dickinson, eds.
Water.
Putnam. 2002

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 9 November 2005

Six delightful fantasy tales from husband and wife authors Dickinson and McKinley. I've been a fan of McKinley for ages: her simple, dreamy prose evokes a wonderful feeling of character and place, and many of her heroines are the kind of down to earth sensible sorts one would like as a big sister, as well as being heroic champions. And Dickinson's style here, I discover, is similar. The blurb on the back cover states "They plan to write three other books in the Elementals sequence" -- I certainly hope so.

Contents

Peter Dickinson. Mermaid Song. 2002
Pitiable Nasmith learned to sing the mermaid's song from her grandmother, never realising she would one day need it.
Robin McKinley. The Sea-King's Son. 2002
Jenny, fleeing a disasterous encounter with her faithless fiance, unwittingly trips the curse that the sea-king laid on her village generations ago.
Peter Dickinson. Sea Serpent. 2002
How Iril battled the giant sea serpent to transport the great standing stones to a new place.
Robin McKinley. Water Horse. 2002
Tamia is stunned to be chosen as an apprentice by one of the Guardians, and is called one to use her new magic before she is fully trained.
Peter Dickinson. Kraken. 2002
Two human lovers fleeing pirates are rescued from the depths by a mermaid. But they have disturbed the Kraken, who demands their return.
Robin McKinley. A Pool in the Desert. 2002
A story of Damar. Hetta has realistic dreams of a strange desert land. When she researches it, she discovers it actually exists, and plans to travel there. But then she discovers that her dreams are of a past time in the land.

Robin McKinley, Peter Dickinson, eds.
Fire.
Ace. 2009

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 19 December 2010

Five more delightful elemental fantasy tales from husband and wife authors Dickinson and McKinley, here on the theme of fire. The stories of Phoenix and First Flight are great; Hellhound is good. I'm looking forward to the remaining tales of Earth and Air: I hope it won't take another seven years for each of these to appear!

Contents

Peter Dickinson. Phoenix. 2009
The Phoenix reappears, in an old English woodland, looked after through the trials of the 20th century by unlikely acolytes. But the phoenix needs sunshine, and the acolytes won't live forever.
Robin McKinley. Hellhound. 2009
A riding stables assistant gets a new dog that is rather more than it seems. Then a haunted graveyard becomes active.
Peter Dickinson. Fireworm. 2009
An Ice Age tale of dreamwalking to remove the terror of the fireworm.
Peter Dickinson. Salamander Man. 2009
A young slave boy is sold to a magician to undo a great evil. (I felt this was the weakest story: a big gob of infodumping in the middle made it feel more like the outline for a novel than a story in its own right.)
Robin McKinley. First Flight. 2009
Why has the Academy decreed that an infirm dragon should participate in First Flight? And why does the wizard Ralas think that the young Eled and his silly foogit pet can help? (An interesting world where being a Healer is a despised occupation.)