Monday, March 10, 2008

Robin McKinley

The Blue Sword
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Age: 14+

This Newbery Honor book is the first in a series of novels about the fantasy realm of Damar, which also includes the Newbery Medal-winning The Hero and the Crown. And Potterheads will be amazed to learn that this book contains both a Harry and a Draco. Only Draco, in this case, is a horse; and Harry is a girl.

Set in a fantasy-world version of the British Empire of Queen Victoria's day, in a country somewhat like India, it tells the story of a young woman from the Homeland (i.e., England) who gets swept into a strange destiny with the Riders of the King of a mysterious kingdom bordering the empire's holdings - and a terrible war against their evil, not-entirely-human neighbors to the north.

Possessed of a power called kelar that is like a magical gift that, until now, was only found among the Hill People, Harry Crewe (the nickname is short for "Angharad") is snatched from her bed in a diplomat's house but treated with honor by her captor, King Corlath of Damar. His kelar made him do it, and he doesn't really know why. But soon Harry shows signs of amazing power - including visions of the future, a gift of tongues and the skills of battle, and the protection of an ancient lady hero named Aerin Dragon-Killer whose sword she bears. (For Aerin's story, see The Hero and the Crown.) Harry, who has long thought of herself as an ugly duckling with socially unacceptable habits, soon becomes an inspiration to a dwindling kingdom that faces the prospect of war with the vast armies of the north.

But then an immortal seer becomes involved... and a nagging doubt takes shape in Harry's mind... and her pride & sense of strategy lead her to take a risk on which the future of both Damar and the Homelander Empire may depend... and which may make her a woman without a country.

Rich in detail, this novel brings a strange world, a unique culture, and a lot of interesting people vividly to life. While reading this book, it's hard at times to keep in mind that it all takes place in a fantasy world. With a breadth of scope and pacing, a streak of seriousness that may appeal to any adult reader, and a joy in magic and battle and amazing creatures, this is a story that I think readers of any age will enjoy.

by Robin McKinley
Recommended Age: 15+

From the award-winning author of several novel-sized fantasies featuring strong, romantic heroines, comes this adaptation of an R-rated Perrault fairy tale that was originally called "Donkeyskin."

Lissla Lissar is a princess whose beautiful, royal parents are the stuff of fairy tales, including the ones her own nurse tells her: how her mother is the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms; how her grandfather sent her mother's suitors far and wide to do impossible tasks to win her hand; and how her super-handsome father went to the ends of the earth to prove that he was her true love. But, as the people of the kingdom bask in the glory of their perfect king and queen, the young princess lives a life of neglect.

Then the fairy tale turns into a nightmare. The queen falls ill and makes a gruesome deathbed request... the king goes mad with grief... and though things start to look up for Lissar when a foreign prince sends her a fleethound puppy to comfort her in her time of loss, and Lissar gets new and better quarters and begins to come into her own as an adult member of the court... something is truly rotten in whatever this kingdom is called. It grows from a sense of uneasiness and foreboding, to a shocking climax of brutality and evil. With the result that a gravely wounded princess and her grievously wounded dog stagger out into the wilderness in the middle of the night.

Madness and despair close in, and death seems close at hand. But a (being-spirit? goddess?) called Moonwoman gives Lissar the gift of time. Time to heal and make a new beginning. She makes it in another kingdom - the kingdom of the prince who sent her the dog--where she goes to work in the kennels, nursing sick puppies and training majestic hunting dogs. Though she likes to dress in a deerskin dress & run around barefoot, people think she's something special. A lady, at least... if not Moonwoman herself, with the power to find lost things and protect the innocent.

But when the prince falls in love with her, Lissar may not have the strength to return his love. Not with the scars she bears, and the self-loathing that results from them. Can she claim the new life, and love, that she deserves? Or will she run away from Moonwoman's gift?

This is a very adult fantasy. By this I don't mean it is sleazy or pornographic, but it is very direct & open about sexual themes, full of passions and dreads and darkness that may overwhelm immature readers, not to mention the truly strange and disturbing climax. Written with sensitivity, intelligence, and a wealth of lifelike detail - not to mention a sincere love of dogs - it is an unforgettable book for those who have the strength to experience it.

The Door in the Hedge
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Age: 13+

The Newbery-Medal winning author of many novel-length books of fantasy, for youth and adults, as well as “fairy tale novelizations” like Spindle’s End, has struck again with this collection of four fairy tales elaborated with warmth, sensitivity, and compelling characters, and interesting new twists.

In “The Stolen Princess,” we learn what happens in the last kingdom before the borders of Fairyland (or Faerie Land), where newborn boys sometimes disappear from their cradles, and the most beautiful girls vanish on their seventeenth birthdays, and now the only princess in that kingdom seems doomed to vanish like all the others, never to return. What will her parents and their adoring subjects do? What happens when the borders of reality are challenged?

In “The Princess and the Frog,” an evil sorcerer-prince has used his powers to subject an entire royal court to himself. On the verge of despair, on the verge of being conquered like the rest of her family, a princess flees to a pool of water in the palace gardens and accepts the help of a talking frog. And just in case you think Ms. McKinley doesn’t have her facts straight:
“You cannot be a frog,” she said stupidly. “You must be under a spell.” ...

“Of course,” snapped the frog. “Frogs don’t talk.”
In “The Hunting of the Hind,” a golden deer disturbs the huntsmen of a king’s house, and those few who follow her return broken in body and spirit, if at all. Now the beloved prince of the land lies daying. And it falls to a neglected princess to find out the secret of the golden hind.

In “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” which in my opinion is the best-executed story in the book (and that’s saying a lot), a soldier weary from the wars tries his strength one last time, in a bid to save the king’s daughters from an evil enchantment. But even the advice of a wise woman, the friendship of a captain of guards, and the possession of a cloak of invisibility (which almost has a personality of its own) can scarcely prepare the soldier for the threats and wonders of an underworld palace where beautiful people dance all night, where jewels grow on trees, and where the only thing more intoxicating than the music is the terror of the silence that watches behind it.

I have read some, if not all, of these fairy tales in other versions, and some of the other versions have their points to recommend them. But what McKinley’s versions lack in crispness and playfulness, they make up in lush scenery and the compelling detail of human drama. You almost learn what it would really feel like to be the hero or heroine of each tale. And that’s no trifling accomplishment!

The Hero and the Crown
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Age: 14+

Though this book won the 1985 Newbery Medal for excellence in children's literature, it is a rather grown-up book. I suppose that proves that a book doesn't have to be about children, or even necessarily written for children, to be enjoyed by young readers.

This is a classic example of the "sword and sorcery" type of novel, set in a long-ago legendary land called Damar. There the king's daughter, flame-haired Aerin, grows up isolated and distrusted by the courtly people around her. Her mother was a commoner and, worse, came from the mysterious and demon-ridden north country; she died in childbirth, allegedly out of disappointment at bearing a daughter. And Aerin herself lacks the magical abilities that single out those born to royal blood.

Whispered about by the common people and routinely humiliated by her blueblood cousins, Aerin spends much of her time in seclusion, learning sword-fighting from Tor (the heir-apparent who loves her) and horse-riding from a crippled battle-stallion named Talat. When an ancient manuscript inspires her to take up dragon-slaying as a hobby, Aerin's unique destiny begins to show its shape.

On her way to that destiny, though, she goes through unspeakable dangers, carrying away wounds without and within. She faces the great Black Dragon alone. She gathers a very strange army. She journeys through the shadow of death to the pinnacle of evil, where a kind of Dark Lord threatens to destroy her land and all that she loves. And she emerges with a long-lost emblem of power, to taste love, and battle, and grief, and victory.

It is a very beautifully written book, delighting all the senses with rich and vibrant imagery. It is also a deeply introspective, mature, and realistic study of the emotions of a woman torn between resentment and loyalty, loneliness and love, courage and cowardice, despair and hope. I might also mention that it succeeds in creating terror, suspense, courtly melodrama, and grimly powerful battle scenes. Have a taste of this little sample:
Still she climbed, but she no longer felt alone. Evil was with her; red evil shone in her eyes, rode on her shoulders, harried her heels; waited in the dark doorways where she would not look, fell like ash and rose like smoke from the torches. Evil was all around her, and it watched her, eyelessly, watched for her first stumble.
This book is the prequel to a 1983 Newbery Honor Book called The Blue Sword.

The Outlaws of Sherwood
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Age: 14+

This version of the Robin Hood legend, from the novelist who brought us the award-winning The Hero and the Crown and such book-length fairy tales as Deerskin and Spindle’s End, is an enthralling & uplifting account that combines believable detail from Richard Lionheart’s England with compelling emotional insights into the characters of Robin and his merry band. It is a story full of danger and adventure, pain and sorrow, love stories and the bitter hatred between a greedy Norman sheriff and a band of Saxon outlaws. And though a strict retelling of the age-old tale is tempered by the author’s own creative ideas, it also strikes many a well-loved chord.

Behold Robin: the son of a king’s forester and a woodsman himself, an indifferent archer, no kind of idealist at all, but entirely practical and careful in all his ways. He loses his father, then his father’s small land holding, when he is barely a man himself. Then, goaded into a crime he didn’t mean to commit, he becomes a hunted man, living off the king’s deer in the king’s forest of Sherwood, avoiding the king’s foresters, and assembling a small band of similarly disfranchised people.

Behold Marian: a nobleman’s daughter, chafing against her father’s ambitions to marry her off to the richest man who will have her, chafing equally against Robin’s insistence that she stay away from him and from danger. He insists because he loves her; she disobeys, because she loves him.

Behold Much, a miller’s son who could almost talk the legs off a horse; Will Scarlet, a runaway noble’s son who gives up a life of luxury to become an outlaw when his beloved sister is forced into a horrible marriage; Little John, a giant with a dark past and a grim outlook on life; Alan-a-dale, a completely absurd, lovesick minstrel; Tuck, the dog-loving, people-hating priest and friar; and the mysterious Cecil, whose explosive secret turns all of Greentree on its ear.

Behold, in addition, a wealth of colorful characters, a villain that will make your blood run cold, a non-stop plot that simmers with suspense and pops with action, a vein of merry humor, and a legendary forest in a legendary time that comes to life in such a way that you never doubt that it is real. And don’t neglect the informative Afterword, which may give you some short-term reading goals from among the dozens of other books about Robin Hood, from which Ms. McKinley drew, and which she transformed in her own unforgettable way.

Rose Daughter
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Age: 14+

Twenty years after basing her first novel, Beauty, on the tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” Newbery-winning author McKinley revisited the same fairy tale in this remarkable book. At the same time this book expresses her love of roses, her wistfulness in leaving behind one home and one country for another, and some of love’s profoundest mysteries, which she had experienced in her own recent marriage.

Beauty, along with her widowed father and her sisters Lionheart and Jeweltongue, have relocated from a big mansion in the city to a small cottage in the country, after financial and social disasters left them humiliated and disillusioned. How they came to inherit the little house is a mystery to them, but they make the most of it. Lionheart dresses as a young man and finds employment in a rich squire’s stables. Jeweltongue discovers her true calling as a seamstress. And Beauty brings the cottage’s garden, especially its roses, to life. This is remarkable because, in Beauty’s world, only a magician can grow roses. And no magician has dared to approach the village of Longchance for many years. There is even talk of a curse...

This curse comes back to Beauty’s mind when her father returns from a journey, shaken by an encounter with a horrible beast. The old man was only allowed to live when the Beast heard about Beauty and her roses. Now, as the price of her father’s life, Beauty must go to the Beast’s mysterious, magic-filled palace and tend the seemingly lifeless roses in his glasshouse.

Beauty grows to sympathize with the Beast more and more, while she adds her loving touch to the magic that helps the roses grow. It’s no wonder he keeps asking her to marry him, though she keeps refusing to do so. When the roses finally bloom again, and Beauty thinks she has done what she was brought there to do, she asks leave to go home to her father and sisters. That’s when the Beast says she is entirely free to go... only, if she does not return, he will die without her.

Clearly, this most romantic of fairy tales can stand up to any number of retellings, particularly if they are as rich and rose-scented as this one. Even though it is a tale most of us know well, and have heard many times, McKinley’s retelling is not without its surprises. The magical mystery behind it all gives the book a menacing undertone, and gardening enthusiasts will be captivated by the account of Beauty and her roses. The talking salamander and his gift are also an interesting touch. With material suitable for all ages, I think teens and adults will especially enjoy this new version of an old, old children’s story.

Spindle's End
by Robin McKinley
Recommended Age: 14+

Newbery medal-winning author Robin McKinley is well-known for her novel-length adaptations of fairy tales, such as Deerskin, Beauty, and Rose Daughter. This wonderful fantasy book is her version of "The Sleeping Beauty."

It takes place in a certain country where magic settles out of the air like dust, and where some people - fairies and magicians - make a living controlling the rambunctious magic that permeates everything. In that country, a king and queen invite 21 fairies to be godparents to their long-hoped-for infant daughter. But on the child's nameday, a wicked fairy named Pernicia turns up uninvited and puts a curse on the child. On or perhaps before her 21st birthday, goes the curse, the princess will prick her finger on a spindle's end and fall into a sleep from which there will be no waking.

Katriona, a 15-year-old apprentice fairy from the small village of Foggy Bottom in the backward corner of the land known as the Gig, having been selected by lottery to attend the princess' name-day, witnesses this dreadful curse... and impulsively intervenes. Before she quite knows what she has gotten herself into, Katriona is fleeing from the capital city with a stolen, infant princess in her arms, using her ability to talk to the animals to provide the child with milk. Then, aided by her Aunt, she raises Rosie herself.

The princess grows up to be a headstrong, active young woman, whose gift of talking to animals surpasses that of any fairy, and whose greatest success is to befriend the tightlipped village smith, Narl. While soldiers, wizards, and rumors circulate throughout the country trying to save the princess from a curse that is still in search of her, an unconcerned Rosie grows up to be a horse-leech, a whittler of the knobby, ornamental, wooden kind of spindle-ends that have become fashionable since that dreadful name-day, and best friend to a lovely wainwright's niece named Peony. She hasn't the slightest idea of who she is or what her destiny may be.

But the long-lost princess' one-and-twentieth birthday draws nearer, and as it does so, menacing signs multiply. Finally a mysterious messenger, reciting a cradle-rhyme as a secret password, comes to unmask Rosie to herself and to the world, and to prepare her for a final gambit, a final showdown against the brooding evil of Pernicia. The climax of the story is a tour de force of fairy-tale fantasy, with an ancient manor-house that thinks vast thoughts, and a bunch of animals that cooperate together to help their princess, and bizarre creatures of evil, and a dread poisoned sleep, and a living barrier of briar-roses, and more.

This is a book in which the fantasy is fantastic, the horror is horrible, the romance is romantic, and the magic is magical. The animals are compelling characters, a host of fairy-tale clichés are transformed and renewed, a scintillating new magical world is convincingly created, and a truly awesome young heroine dominates the scene. And best of all, it is told with whimsy, wit, and warmth--it doesn't take itself too seriously. I can think of but a few books whose first and last pages were as close to perfection as this book's. And here's a passage that I just can't help quoting to you:
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 anyone's knee and purred.
EDIT: Robin McKinley, whose husband is Peter Dickinson, has also written a vampire novel called Sunshine, a worm novel called Dragonhaven, and the short story collections A Knot in the Grain and (with Dickinson) Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits. They're pretty much all on my "get around to it" list. Here is Robin McKinley's official webpage. Here is her blog.

No comments: