Tag Archives: Robin McKinley

Deerskin

McKinley, Robin. Deerskin (1993). 309 Pages. Ace Fantasy. $7.99

Warning: This book deals with rape an other “adult” themes.

From the Cover:

As Princess Lissar reaches womanhood, it is clear to all the kingdom that in her breathtaking beauty she is the mirror image of her mother, the queen. But this seeming blessing forces her to flee for safety from her father’s wrath. With her loyal dog Ash at her side, Lissar unlocks a door to a world of magic, where she finds the key to her survival– and an adventure beyond her wildest dreams…

First Lines

Many years later she remembered how her parents had looked to her when she was a small child: her father as tall as a tree, and merry and bright and golden, with her beautiful black-haired mother at his side. She saw them, remembered them, as if she were looking at a painting; they were too splendid to be real, and always they seemed at some little distance from her, from all onlookers. They were always standing close together as she remembered them, often gazing into each other’s eyes, often handclasped, often smiling; and always there was a radiance like sunlight flung around them.

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Filed under Adult Fiction, Book Review, Fairy Tales Retold, Fantasy, High Fantasy

Rose Daughter

McKinley, Robin. Rose Daughter (1998). 287 Pages. Ace. $6.99

Robin McKinley is known for her fairytale retellings; Beauty and Rose Daughter both retell Beauty & the Beast, while Spindle’s End retells Sleeping Beauty, and Deerskin retells Donkey Skin, which is a lesser known tale, I believe. All of her books exist in worlds steeped in magic, full of amazing things, which is part of why they (and the characters who inhabit them) are so very interesting.

It’s always hard to know what to say about fairytale retellings; everyone knows the basic story, the beginning, and the end. Beauty is taken from her family, and eventually she falls in love with the Beast. It’s that middle part, the part that can vary, the way they get from A to B that really makes the story unique.

Rose Daughter is about Beauty, Jeweltongue, and Lionheart, three sisters who were not very close while they lived in the city– there were too many other things to do. Each girl comes into her own when they move out to Longchance– and Rose Cottage. Jeweltongue learns to sew, and make beautiful clothing, Lionheart disguises herself as a boy and tends to horses, and Beauty gardens. When their father gets a message saying that one of his long lost ships has arrived, he departs, and it is upon his return that he encounters the Beast.

Beauty’s time at the castle is special, and a bit unique. Every day when she wakes up, there are more animals, moving back in thanks to her. There is a mystery– revolving around cheese, though it is not a silly mystery as that statement makes it sound– and some danger. The Beast has hidden depths, and ultimately, Beauty must make a very important choice which changes the course of their life together.

First Lines:

Her earliest memory was of waking up from the dram. It was also her only clear memory of her mother. Her mother was beautiful, dashing, the toast of the town. Her youngest daughter remembered the blur of activity, friends and hangers-on, soothsayers, and staff, the bad-tempered pet dragon on a leash– bad tempered on account of the ocarunda leaves in his food … — the constant glamour and motion which was her mother and her mother’s world.

Thoughts

Rose Daughter may be another Beauty & the Beast retelling, but it is very different from Beauty, this story’s predecessor.

Beauty is, in fact, a beautiful girl, whose talents are mostly of the quiet variety; she is good with plants, roses will grow for her, and she seems to radiate calm and peace, helping her entire family stay together through the worst of it all. Her sisters are flashier, and more vibrant; Jeweltongue is known for her wit and cleverness, Lionheart for her temper and bravery (though each discover more traits which lead to greater happiness), but without Beauty, they would have been lost. Even Beauty’s father discovers a quieter sort of happiness, and his own talent.

The time Beauty spends at the castle is interesting; she is overwhelmed by the silence of the place, and tries to understand (at least a little) the magic which keeps the place running. Her relationship with the Beast is complicated from the start, which somehow makes it easier to accept her feelings for him; she sees early on that there is some humanity in him. Even more interesting is the idea that the Beast is not a Beast because of an enchantress’s curse, but rather because of something else.

Most of the book is very good; we get a lot about Beauty and her family, which makes them feel real. We get less about the Beast, but we still get a fair amount of his story. We lack a lot about the residents of Longchance, which is mostly ok, because the story isn’t about them, but they do play a major role in plot development. There is a difference in chronology between the Beast’s castle and the mundane world, and it is never questioned or explained, just allowed to be. There are a few more things which could have strengthened the story, but it is not bad because they are lacking.

Despite its flaws, it is a good book with a solid story, and is well worth reading. (It also stands up to multiple reads, which is important, as I am known to re-read favorites.) It gets a 4/5.

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Sunshine

McKinley, Robin. Sunshine (2010 ed). 405 Pages. Speak. $8.99

Sunshine is not a vampire story the way Pegasus is not about winged horses. Sunshine is about Rae Seddon– commonly called Sunshine– a young woman whose life is forever altered by her choice to go out to the local lake, alone, and at night. It is there that she is grabbed by Others and dragged to a remote, abandoned house.

At first Sunshine is confused, because she isn’t dead yet, and Vampires don’t usually play with their food for long. However, she is not alone in the abandoned mansion; she is to be dinner for Con, a vampire no freer than she is.

To get out of this alive, Sunshine needs his help, and strangely enough, he needs hers.

First Lines

It was a dumb thing to do but it wasn’t that dumb. There hadn’t been any trouble out at the lake in years. And it was so exquisitely far from the rest of my life.

Monday evening is our movie evening because we are celebrating having lived through another week. Sunday night we lock up at eleven or midnight and crawl home to die, and Monday (barring a few national holidays) is our day off. Ruby comes in on Mondays with her warrior cohort and attacks the coffeehouse with an assortment of high-tech blasting gear that would whack Godzilla into submission: those single-track military minds never think to ask their cleaning staff for help in  giant lethal marauding creature matters.

Thoughts

While Sunshine’s world is similar to ours, it is not ours. It is a sort of parallel dystopia, in which the Voodoo Wars– a battle between the Humans and the Others– have left humanity struggling to rebuild in a wasteland. This world is simultaneously eerily similar to, and startlingly different from our own*. There is a lot going on here; the human population has been decimated, Others are discriminated against, part-bloods held responsible for their heritage, cities are slowly growing, around the “bad spots,” and places like Charlie’s Coffeehouse are small havens from the insanity.

I think the world-building may be my favorite part of this book, actually. The characters come second to the world for me. I wanted more about the world, more about the why, the what, the how. Things are hinted at, bits are mentioned, there are “bad spots” where humans dare not go, left-overs of powerful magic. But why are they there? My curiosity was not completely satisfied, which was a little frustrating, because I’m usually quite content with her worlds.

I do like Sunshine, but she is not the strongest female McKinley has ever written, and I have an affinity for the strong girls. At first, Sunshine is rather inactive, she is victimized, and spends a lot of time recovering from the trauma. She struggles with her sense of self, with needing support and being afraid to reach for it, with the ramifications of what exactly she has done, and with her bond.

Something which is particularly problematic to me are the relationships in this book. Sunshine is dating Mel**, but they seem stuck in a sort of loose dating, where they’re together when it’s convenient. Sunshine never seems to talk about things to him, and though he could be there for her if she just asked, she doesn’t. There are hints about her heritage, things which her mother may have been hiding, but it is never verified, it remains Sunshine’s theory, and is never really tested. She’s surrounded by family and friends and people who care about her, and some of them are powerful enough in their own right that they could protect her, but she doesn’t turn to any of them. She instead relies upon a Vampire who she has only known for a brief amount of time.

When I first read this book, I remember really liking it. I was on a vampire kick, and I was reading everything I could. This was not a YA book then, but that didn’t stop me. Looking at it, and having read it, I wonder if it is a YA book now. There is a fairly explicit scene around page 250 which left me wondering if it should be called YA. I don’t necessarily feel that teens need to be protected from everything sexual, but I felt a little awkward reading this scene, and I’m an adult. I imagine most teens would either be titillated or would feel as awkward as I did.

It is sad, knowing that I will never know more. McKinley doesn’t write sequels. She may eventually venture back into the same world, if her muses drag her there, but this is the only guaranteed book in this setting. It’s a pity, because there is so much you can do with a post-apocalyptic world. There are options, and ideas, and worldwide locations.

Anyway, this volume gets a 4/5. There is a lot more that could have been done with Sunshine, and I wasn’t wholly satisfied (and not just because I wanted more, which is a good sort of unsatisfied.) It is worth reading, because it is enthralling, and it’s very different from what you expect, if you’ve been told it’s a vampire book, because it’s not. There are vampires, but ultimately, this book is about Sunshine.

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* It left me thinking of Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan world, actually.

** I like Mel, a lot. He’s got magical tattoos, which remind me of Pritkin’s tattoos from Karen Chance’s books.

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The Outlaws of Sherwood

McKinley, Robin. The Outlaws of Sherwood (2003 ed.). 342 Pages. Firebird. $6.99

From the Back Cover

He never meant to be an outlaw. But a split second changed everything.

In the days of King Richard the Lionheart, a young forester named Robin sets out one morning for the Nottingham Fair, but he never arrives. By the end of the day a man lies dead in the King’s Forest, and Robin is an outlaw with a price on his head.

From then on, Robin is on the run, hiding deep in Sherwood Forest– but he is not alone. First joined by his friends Much and Marian, then by more and more people who despise the Norman lords who tax them blind, Robin builds a community of outlaws in a forest who risk the gallows and the sword for the sake of justice. As he does, he gains a new name: Robin Hood.

First Lines

A small vagrant breeze came from nowhere and barely flicked the feather tips as the arrow sped on its way. It shivered in its flight, and fell, a little off course– just enough that the arrow missed the slender tree it was aimed at, and struck tiredly and low into the bole of another tree, twenty paces beyond the mark.

Robin sighed and dropped his bow. There were some people, he thought, who not only could shoot accurately– if the breeze hadn’t disturbed it, that last arrow would have flown true– but seemed to know when and where to expect small vagrant breezes, and to allow for them. He was not a bad archer, but his father had been a splendid one, and he was his father’s only child.

Thoughts

Robin Hood is a legend who changes with every telling. Every version has its own agenda, its own twists, and its own characterization. Some even throw in their own characters, to spice things up, and make it novel again. McKinley’s Robin Hood is a different sort; an unwilling champion, who becomes infamous simply by surviving, and becomes a legend by accident. He inherits an agenda from the beliefs of his fans, and this is what makes him so different.

Robin and Marian may be one of my earliest ships. It started with Disney’s Robin Hood, when you knew they were destined for each other, because they were both foxes, and continued through every version I’ve read since. Robin loves Marian, though he never says as much to anyone, and wants her to stay safe, even if it means staying away. Marian loves Robin, and persists with her visits because she cannot help herself, because she knows she is needed, and because she longs for the freedom the forest offers.

Perhaps my favorite plot which is unique to this version is that of Cecil– a boy who refuses to be stopped by anything. He becomes Little John’s protégé, dogging his mentor’s footsteps, and learning about survival. Cecil and Little John become very important toward the end of the book, when they are the only members of Robin’s band to attend the fateful tournament for the golden arrow. Every version does this scene differently, and it’s the sort of constant which allows comparisons between interpretations. This particular tournament is done well, and serves as a sort of climax to the novel.

All-in-all, I really like this version. I have not re-read it many times, because I read it very slowly. I am not sure why it takes me so much longer, but it is worth the time it takes. It gets a 4/5.

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Spindle’s End

McKinley, Robin. Spindle’s End (2000). 422 Pages. Firebird. $6.99

Princess Briar-Rose would have been special even had her parents not been barren for so long before her birth. She was a Crown-Princess, to become the first queen in nearly 400 years. However, the evil fairy Pernicia has been waiting for a queen for a very long time. On the princess’s name-day, Pernicia takes the opportunity to curse the child; she will prick her finger and die on her 21st birthday.

Shocked, and a bit overwhelmed, nobody reacts but the fairy Katriona, a young woman from far away Foggy Bottom. With the help of another fairy, Katriona whisks the princess away, hoping to hide her, and protect her with “ordinariness.” This gives Rosie the time to grow up, into a strong young woman who has a chance against the dark fate she faces.

First Lines

The magic in that country was so thick and tenacious that it settled over the land like chalk-dust and over floors and shelves like slightly sticky plaster-dust. (Housecleaners in that country earned unusually good wages.) If you lived in that country, you had to de-scale your kettle of its encrustation of magic at least once a week, because if you didn’t, you might find yourself pouring hissing snakes or pond slime into your teapot instead of water.

Thoughts:

Everyone knows Sleeping Beauty. The infant princess, cursed by an evil fairy, saved by a good one. Doomed to prick her finger and die, but not truly. Spindle’s End is simultaneously Sleeping Beauty, and its own tale, and that is what makes it so wonderful. Rosie is anything but the weak-willed, doomed princess who is so often present in this tale. Katriona is far from the silly fairies of Disney fame. The two of them transform the story from a classic into something new, and a bit exciting.

One of the more interesting themes in this book is family, and how everything is about love, rather than blood. Katriona loves Rosie as her own, wanting nothing more than to keep Rosie forever, instead of having to give her back to the royal family, or lose her to the curse. Rosie feels loved, and accepted, but just a little different, a little outside of her family. And the royal family, as distant as they are, clearly love Rosie, too. Peony and Rosie are closer than sisters, the sort of friends who are together through everything.

There are many supporting characters who play a major role in either world-building, or plot-moving. There are very few characters who do not make multiple appearances, and every single character serves a purpose, which can be difficult when writing about an entire kingdom.

I find myself re-reading Spindle’s End periodically, enjoying it in a slightly different way each time. There are a few surprises, the first time, a few details you may have missed in the second read, a few more in the third, and each time, it becomes a richer experience as you get the chance to savor favorite scenes. It’s an enduring favorite, which of course gets a 5/5.

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The Blue Sword

McKinley, Robin. The Blue Sword (2000 ed.) 272 Pages. Puffin. $5.99

Harry Crewe knew from the beginning that when her parents died, she would be thrust upon the mercy of her brother Richard. (Not an entirely bad fate, as she knew her brother was a good, and dutiful man.) What Harry did not know was that when this fate eventually caught up with her, she would end up in Damar, a Homelander Colony.

When Corlath, king of the Free Hillfolk comes to warn the Homelanders of an impending war, he does not expect Harry. Despite being a girl from across the sea, something about her is unique, and it is clear that her fate lies in the Damarian Hills. Like Aerin before her, Harry has the outsider’s ability to save Damar.

First Lines:

She scowled at her glass of orange juice. To think that she had been delighted when she first arrived here– was it only three months ago?– with the prospect of fresh orange juice every day. But she had been eager to be delighted; this was to be her home, and she wanted badly to like it, to be grateful for it– to behave well, to make her brother proud of her and Sir Charles and Lady Amelia pleased with their generosity.

Thoughts:

I think part of why I love Harry so much is because she has always reminded me of my best friend. A tall blonde, determined to be optimistic, and stubborn. As I read Harry’s story, I picture Novia, staring down desert men, wielding a sword, riding beautiful horses.

Harry’s story is an adventure of epic proportions, and she learns to love Damar with the reader. The customs are strange, the world unique, and we get to experience them through the eyes of an outsider, coming to terms with her connection to the country.

As I said when talking about The Hero and the Crown, I will not pretend to be reasonable about this book. It got me through some rough times, and was with me through some good times. It was beautiful and enthralling and no matter what mood I am in when I pick it up, I am transported to Damar, and it feels like everything will be alright.

This book gets a 5/5 and a very strong insistence that you read it.

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The Hero and the Crown

McKinley, Robin. The Hero and the Crown (2000 ed.) 246 Pages. Puffin. $5.99

Aerin is a king’s daughter, a first-sol, and an outsider in her own country. Her mother was a Northerner, a mysterious woman who many said bewitched the king. Having always been hyper-aware of her tenuous position in her father’s kingdom, Aerin has allowed herself to be pushed aside, and overlooked.

When she comes across a recipe for kenet- which promises fireproofing, even from dragons- Aerin finds a purpose. She gains a reputation for dragonslaying, but this is only the beginning of a fate which is much greater than anyone could have guessed.

First Lines:

She could not remember a time when she had not know the story; she had grown up knowing it. She supposed someone must have told her it, sometime, but she could not remember the telling. She was beyond having to blink back tears when she thought of those things the story explained, but when she was feeling smaller and shabbier than usual in the large vivid City high in the Damarian Hills she still found herself brooding about them; and brooding sometimes brought on a tight headachy feeling around her temples, a feeling like suppressed tears.

Thoughts:

This is one of those books which I have quite literally loved to pieces. I first found The Hero and the Crown during a hard time in my life– mom and I were living with a crazy landlady, and we both needed our escapes. Perhaps it is because of those memories that this book will always have a special place for me. I am completely and utterly in love with Damar, and the stories set there.

Despite the fact that The Blue Sword was written first, I always start with The Hero and the Crown, because it comes first in Damarian chronology. I love reading about Aerin* and everything she does. She might be one of my favorite heroines ever* and her story is fantastic.

I am not going to pretend to be reasonable about my love of this book, because after so long, nothing reasonable remains. As far as I am concerned, it is a brilliant story with brilliant writing and brilliant characters. If I had to complain about something, it would be that McKinley has said that there may be more Damar books but she has not written them yet.

This book gets a 5/5 and the unwavering insistence that if you like Fantasy, you should read this book.

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* I swear, it’s not because her name is so similar to mine.

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