Classic Review: Beauty by Robin McKinley

Since I’m spending November working on (hopefully) the fourth book of my fairy tale-inspired series, Beyond the Tales, it seems like a good time to revisit one of my very favorite retellings!

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“Beauty and the Beast” has always been one of my favorite fairy tales–probably because the retellings are so good.  If you go back to the original story, it’s almost as flawed as any other traditional fairy tale.  But the retellings…are SO good.  Beauty by Robin McKinley is a particular favorite of mine.

The basic story is familiar, if you’ve read the original or even if you’ve seen the Disney movie.  From the Disney movie you’ll recognize the part about the terrifying Beast living in the castle in the woods.  A lost traveler spends the night and, upon offending the Beast, agrees to bring back his daughter, Beauty, to stay at the castle.  From the original story you’ll recognize the part about Beauty’s father being a rich merchant who lost his fortune, forcing them to move out to the country.  And Beauty had two sisters as well, and it was Beauty’s request for a rose when her father began his ill-fated journey that, in a way, put everything else in motion.

I think I read Beauty before I read the original fairy tale, so when I did read the original, I kept thinking, “oh, now I see where McKinley got that detail or this part from!”  But, like any great fairy tale retelling, McKinley has taken the slender original story and embroidered and expanded upon it, bringing the characters to life and explaining the bits that never quite made sense. Continue reading “Classic Review: Beauty by Robin McKinley”

Robin McKinley’s Shadowy New Novel

I’ve been hearing about Shadows by Robin McKinley for months and months…because I follow McKinley’s blog, in which she occasionally (not often enough) talks about how the writing is going.  All in all, it made me feel very invested in her newest book.  And it conveniently came out at just the right time for R.I.P. too!

Despite watching the ups and downs of the writing process, I didn’t actually have much of a grasp of the plot of the book–if you read McKinley’s blog, you may understand this, as she tends more towards stream of consciousness than things like explanations!  However, it didn’t really matter, because McKinley is one of those authors I will always read (although the vampire book did give me pause…)

No bloody vampires in this one, I am happy to report, though it does remind me more of Sunshine than her other novels.  It’s another urban fantasy, in a modern but decidedly skewed world.  The heroine is Maggie, who loves animals of all kinds (especially dogs) and hates her stepfather.  Val’s horrible shirts are bad enough, but the real problem is the mysterious shadows Maggie sees clustered around him.  Magic is strictly forbidden in Maggie’s country, and things like periodic rents in the space-time continuum (my phrasing) are handled in a scientific way.  Which is fine…until the shadows want to communicate, Maggie’s best friends turn out to have some very odd abilities, and Maggie’s origami creatures (and algebra book) take on lives of their own.

Maggie is one of those wonderful heroines who is very normal, who then discovers extraordinary abilities, without setting out to do so or losing her normalcy along the way.  Some of the book is about fighting threats (rents in the space-time continuum and a rather questionable government) but mostly it’s about Maggie’s growth, and realization that the world is vastly stranger than she ever knew.  Plus there’s a love interest (two, actually), Maggie has a pretty great dog named Mongo (short for Mongrel), and there’s a wide assortment of other critters, including an amazingly defiant cat, and a love-sick sheep (really).

The critters are fantastically brilliant, and I also love Maggie’s friends.  The romance I’m a little more iffy on–it’s sort of…abrupt.  I don’t dislike it.  But a little more development, a few more moments of internal realization, a bit of clarifying conversation…on the other hand, I should warn you that I like long, slow romances, so this may be a personal preference thing.

McKinley has never been one for reader hand-holding, and it takes a little work to get a footing in the world.  I wouldn’t say it’s ever actually confusing, and there may even be more explaining going on than in some of her books (Chalice comes to mind), but be warned that you do have to pay attention because world-building elements are rarely spelled out.  There’s also quite a bit of slang and magical language which requires some attention to vocabulary–it only gets really out of hand once or twice, and once you learn that gruuaa are magical shadows (sort of), you’ll be all right.

I warn you because, of course, I assume you’re going to read this, right?  I mean, it’s a fantasy from Robin McKinley–that’s enough for me.  For you, I can vouch that it’s an always excellent, sometimes humorous, exciting, mysterious or romantic read.  Go on.  Read it and find out more about gruuaa.

Author’s Site: http://www.robinmckinley.com/

Other reviews:
Cuddlebuggery Book Blog
Bookyurt
Bibliophilia, Please
The Flyleaf Review
Tell me about yours!

Buy it here: Shadows

What Are You Reading – Mad Excitement Edition

What Are You Reading - ExcitementThis is clearly the most exciting week of the year in reading.  Last week, Shadows by Robin McKinley and Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce both came out.  My library already got me Shadows, and I’m #9 in line for Battle Magic–and the library system ordered ten copies, so I expect to receive it momentarily.

Next Tuesday, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente comes out.  That one I have pre-ordered from Amazon and I’m #1 on reserve at the library, so someone will get it to me quickly (not that I’m obsessive of anything…)

Just for fun, the new Neil Gaiman book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I’ve been waiting on the library hold list for since June, picked this weekend to finally reach me.  And the list was vastly shorter for his newer book, Fortunately the Milk, so I expect that at any time as well.

To top the whole thing off, I got the proof copy of my own novel, which I’m self-publishing in November (more on that here), so I’m reading through that for typos, weird formatting, and final-final-final edits.

So this week I find myself with a large stack of must-be-read-now books, all competing and clamoring for attention.  It’s such a good thing I don’t have many evening plans coming up… 🙂

…and They All Lived Happily Ever After

Summer is starting, meaning all sorts of things, but also marking the end of the Once Upon a Time “challenge” for another year.  As always, I had loads of fun reading fantasy, and seeing what everyone else read.  I’m feeling particularly happy, because I managed to complete some long-standing goals…

Here’s a round-up of my reading and viewing for the season.  (R) designates a reread (not a rating!), and links go to reviews.

Total: 21 books, half reread and half new-to-me.  Since one of my goals for the year is to reread favorites, I’m calling that a win.  The big accomplishment, of course, was reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, and I’m very happy I got the extra push to finally do that!  Thank you to everyone who was so encouraging, and for all your great discussion as I read. 🙂

I had sort of hoped to make some progress on my fantasy-heavy TBR list and…well, that didn’t happen at all.  And instead I added to it, by looking at the great things other people were reading.  Ah well…what’s the summer for, after all?

Thank you everyone who came along for the quest!  And do stick around–the reading won’t be ending here!

The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley

Hero and the CrownI recently followed up my reading of The Blue Sword with its prequel/companion, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley, another book for Once Upon a Time.  The books are separated by a few centuries and feature (nearly) all different characters, so either could be read independently.  I read them in publishing order, but I almost wish I had read them chronologically, as I think The Hero and the Crown provides more depth to The Blue Sword, more so than happens the other way around.

I enjoyed the book in a lot of ways, and I feel like I could see McKinley’s development as a writer even between these two books.  There are strong characters, awesome magic, and really interesting dragons.  And…there are problems.  But I’ll get to that in a bit.

The Hero and the Crown focuses on characters who featured as legends in The Blue Sword, particularly Aerin.  The daughter of the King of Damar and his foreign wife, Aerin is viewed with mistrust and disdain by her father’s court.  She’s hot-tempered and impetuous, and strives to prove her worth by killing dragons–who in this world, are a kind of pest, like wild dogs or wolves.  Bigger events surface when a Great Dragon comes out of the hills, and when war threatens with the demonic forces of the North.

I loved Aerin.  She’s likable even when she charges into foolish actions, and I find myself so wanting her to come into her own.  I love that even when she begins killing dragons (which seems like a traditional route to being a hero) she still has to struggle.  I love how she gradually grows throughout the first half of the book, growing in her relationships with others and in her acceptance of herself.  The one reason I’m glad I read The Blue Sword first is that I love having met her as a mythical figure, and now meeting her as a very real girl–it’s never as neat and simple as the myths.

Aerin is surrounded by solid characters as well, from her father who means well but doesn’t know what to do with his daughter; Tor, her dearest and sometimes only friend; Teka, her somewhat fussy nursemaid and surrogate mother; Galanna and Perlith, representatives of the hostile court.

The best character, though, is Talat, Aerin’s horse.  Once the king’s warhorse, Talat was lamed in battle and put out to pasture.  Aerin and Talat lean on each other to find their path, and form a beautiful bond.  A-girl-and-her-horse is an oft-told tale, but this one is really lovely.

I touched on the dragons a bit already, and I just have to say that I love it that they’re not the big bad fearsome and impressive dragons of most stories.  They’re about the size of dogs and treated like any other dangerous wild animal–but not as anything more impressive than that.  In fact, in this country, there’s very little honor in killing dragons.  The Great Dragons are more traditional, but most people consider them only myths…until one arrives, at least.

I don’t want to get into the second half of the book too much, to avoid spoilers, but I have to talk about it to discuss my chief problems with the book.  There’s a clear shift about midway through, as Aerin begins to deal with forces on a larger stage.  The plot shifts, and that’s fine–but I feel like the character shifts too, and that’s not.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact problem or exactly what was missing, but it feels like Aerin stops making decisions for herself.  While she decided to fight dragons or to befriend Talat, later in the book it feels like she’s being moved around by circumstances.  She goes to fight a magician because of a prophecy; she goes through a battle using a sword that seems to move on its own; she climbs endless, endless, endless stairs and never once thinks about turning around.

I wouldn’t say that Aerin behaves out of character in the later parts of the book–but I don’t get a sense of her anymore being an active force in her own path (which, in its own way, is out of character…)  The actions she takes do make sense for her, but there’s a piece missing in the motivations behind the actions.  And that, I find frustrating.

The second half also introduces a new romantic interest, which turned out to be the worst of both worlds.  I didn’t hate that romance, but it never resonated with me either–and yet it was able to disrupt the development of the earlier romance which I had been enjoying.

I didn’t hate the entire second half of the book, by any means.  It was actually still a pretty good story–but it was just a bit off too, and it didn’t live up to the brilliant first half.

I read a review by Memory on Stella Matutina that describes all of this very well and raises some excellent points, if you want to explore the subject further.

I have to wonder if McKinley herself may have realized the issue here.  I’m reminded very much of Rose Daughter, one of her later books.  The heroine is also being pushed around by prophecies and expectations and even the usual format of “Beauty and the Beast”–but she ultimately makes decisions that turn everything on its head.  Choice is very heavily emphasized…so perhaps McKinley knows what happened in The Hero and the Crown.

There’s about half of a really amazing book here–and then a pretty good second half.  So in the end I do recommend it, but I wish I could recommend it more whole-heartedly!

Author’s Site: http://www.robinmckinley.com/

Other reviews:
Beyond Books
The Sleepless Reader
The Book Stop
Dab of Darkness
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Hero and the Crown

Blog Hop: The Pleasures of Rereading

This week’s Book Blogger Hop question is particularly relevant to my recent reading…

book blogger hop

What was the last book you reread?  Or name a book you would like to reread.

Since one of my reading goals for the year is to revisit old favorites, there’s been quite a lot of this going on…especially as it’s Once Upon a Time season, and a lot of my old favorites are fantasies!  Recent rereads include:

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

The Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Links all go to reviews.  The next book I reread will probably be Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier, which I have conveniently sitting on my shelf…

In the meantime, a thought on rereading: “There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over.  When you do, the words get inside you, become part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve only read once can’t.” – Gail Carson Levine

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley

Blue SwordContinuing recent trends, I reread The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley for Once Upon a Time, and for my goal to reread old favorites.  I’ve no idea when I last read this, but it may have been middle school.  By now, it’s like an entirely new book–not a bad thing, when it’s by one of my favorite (but not prolific enough!) authors.

The heroine of the story is Harry, who travels from what seems to be loosely Victorian England, out to the edge of the empire.  The Homeland has never quite conquered the desert and hills of Damar, where the natives still follow the old ways–and are rumored to have magical power.  When Harry is abducted by the Damarian king, she begins to forge a new identity among a foreign people she’s strangely drawn to–and finds a role in their coming war with the North.

I feel like this plot summary makes the book sound like Indian Captive, which it isn’t at all…but telling more would give too much away.

I like Harry as a protagonist–she’s intelligent and capable, and always puts on a strong appearance even when she’s secretly unsure.  She makes some leaps in learning and skills that are, um, improbable to say the least, but there’s a magical explanation so I’ll give that a pass…  McKinley also succeeds in making the Damarian king, Corlath, into a sympathetic character, when he very easily might not have been at all.

The romance comes slightly out of left field, but…it feels like it makes sense when it arrives, so I’ll accept that too.  Slightly sudden romances are a recurring feature of McKinley’s writing…

Besides lots of magic and swordfighting and epic legends, possibly the coolest part of the story is Harry’s animal companions.  She has the world’s most amazing horse, and if that’s not enough, there’s a wildcat too!

It was funny reading this right after Fellowship of the Ring, because in some ways the writing style seemed even more Tolkien than Tolkien himself–more what I expected Tolkien to be.  And by that I mean that there is considerable detail given to what the landscape looks like, the clothing styles, the exact details of saddles…  Most of the time that was all right and even interesting, and mostly the book still moved at a reasonable pace.

The only real trouble I had was at the beginning, and “trouble” might be putting it strongly.  It’s just that there’s a fair bit of set-up explaining the political situation and Harry’s personal past, and it all comes out rather dry.  This is particularly funny because McKinley is known for throwing readers in without much backstory or explanation…but this was an early book.  Evidently her writing evolved.  So if you pick this one up and find it slow, at least go on until Harry’s abducted–I found it picked up considerably then.

This book has made me very much want to reread The Hero and the Crown, which I only remember marginally better.  That one is a prequel, focusing on legendary characters who are frequently referenced here, and I look forward to reading their story.

This book also made me want a really amazing wildcat companion, but that want could be a bit more difficult to satisfy…

Author’s Site: http://www.robinmckinley.com/

Other reviews:
Lisa Godfrees
Bookshop Talk
Tor.com
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Blue Sword