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REVIEW: Pegasus by Robin McKinley

Dear Ms. McKinley,

Your fantasy books made my life in middle school.   I was in a precarious reading stage where I just didn’t know what I liked.   Harry Potter was wrapping up, and I wasn’t sure if the fantasy genre was still my thing.   While not every book tickled my fancy, (some were real stinkers) I discovered a copy of Rose Daughter in my library.   I promptly devoured it – because a bubbly seventh grade reader must devour any YA retelling of Beauty and the Beast – and was enchanted.   So then I read Spindle’s End. By then I really couldn’t deny how brilliant I thought you were.

Pegasus Robin McKinleyI didn’t get the opportunity to read any of your other work from my library at that point, but I was left transformed by these books.   You’ve written countless others, including the ever famous Beauty, The Blue Sword, The Hero and the Crown, and Sunshine.   While Pegasus wasn’t as strong of a read as my favorite of yours (Spindle’s End), it was a fresh breather for the YA world, and on reception of the companion book next year, will seem a little more fleshed out and complete.

Sylviianel (Sylvi, for short) is a princess.   As a member of the royal family, she is required to have a pegasus bound to her.   A thousand years has seen a treaty between the pegasi and the humans acknowledged, and the binding is an important part of inter-species respect.   Sylvi isn’t keen on being bound.   Her father and his pegasus can speak offhandedly, but rarely understand each other.   Her mother and her pegasus can barely speak simple sentences to each other.   It’s been well known that the pegasi and the humans haven’t had a clear understanding of each other.

The day of her binding, Sylvi is introduced to Ebon.   A young, black pegasus with an attitude, Ebon is wary of being bound to Sylvi.   He’s sure that a girl human would connect better with a girl pegasus.   Tradition is tradition, however, and the fourth child of the human king must be bound to the fourth child of the pegasus king.   Unlike anything that’s been known in remotely understood history, Ebon and Sylvi can communicate.   They can mind speak.

Revealing their ability does not come easily.   They suddenly have more responsibility than ever.   Sylvi is barely twelve, yet her people expect her to understand the pegasi because of her communication.   In truth, she only knows what she does from her studies, and from what Ebon slowly begins to tell her.   What she does know is that the humans and the pegasi don’t truly understand each other.   That they may, in fact, be underestimating the intelligence and abilities of the other race.

This brings Sylvi to the attention of the most powerful magician at court, Fthoom.   A stingy and bold magician, he claims the pegasi and the humans can’t understand each other.   That their friendship isn’t as grand as it seems.   Fthoom could prevent the humans and the pegasi from coming to true understanding, and Sylvi is now in his way with her ability to truly speak to them.

Pegasus is the first half of a story that shows the importance and uniqueness of true friendship, as well as communication.   Can two species really learn to speak to each other past simple sign language and mind speak?   Or will Fthoom destroy the wavering peace between them for his own intentions?

One of your biggest strengths has always been the way you write your main female characters.   They are always strong, whether physically or mentally, and they have an air of maturity about them despite their youth.   Yet it’s believable maturity.   Sylvi follows in this same character tradition, but she’s slightly more subdued than your other heroines.   She has more of a mental process about her.   While not quick and cunning or strong and brave, she knows how to get things done.   Practical.   I was never once disappointed with her choices, and the way she handled things throughout the book was solid.   Readers who find the current YA heroine types trending will be pleased to see a stronger and more able character in the works.

Another character you handle well is Ebon.   For many readers, the impossibility of having a romance between Ebon and Sylvi will be reason enough to try out this book, but there are a lot of complexities about his character.   He’s the rasher of the two, yet he still has his own knowledge and skills that reflect someone ready to deal with these responsibilities.   He’s a good other half to Sylvi.   He dares her to take risks (like flying with him, which is considered highly inappropriate) and to look past the social norms without making a big deal about it.   For something to be so serious for Sylvi, yet to be so simple to Ebon, is a good example of the cultural boundaries you play with.   His friendship with Sylvi is also unique in that it has a slow build that really pays off for the reader.   It’s so well drawn that it’s easy to see the beauty in their relationship.

Since the story is mainly focused on these two, they are the most important characters to look at, but the wealth of side characters isn’t to be ignored.   The way you paint each pegasus as individually as you would a human character speaks well for the book’s themes and for your talent at making wonderful characters.   Each one, from Sylvi’s mother to her wishy washy pegasus Hirishy, has a breadth of emotion and personality that other novels don’t.   Part of it is because the story is so massive, yet another part is simply the way you can work these things into the narrative.

With your narrative strengths come worldbuilding strengths, but in Pegasus your world was built almost too well.   I can tell people how pegasi can fly (their bones are hollow) or how human royalty isn’t a sole matriarchy or patriarchy, and that’s something I love.   I entered the world, I invested my time, and I came out with a lot of knowledge that will stay with me subconsciously until the next book appears.   I loved learning about it, as it was so fascinating and well thought out.

Yet you did it almost too much.   The first few chapters were very large in the information department, and a lot of that was the world’s history.   The rest of the novel was much better with handing out information, but the first few chapters are heavy handed and will deter readers with low attention spans.   The book also ends without much resolution, but that’s not a problem with the writing more so than how the book was published.   Consideirng the second half of this duet is actually the second half of the official book, it’s not a big issue.   I’m really excited to read Pegasus II because of the immense payoff I know I’ll receive upon reading it.   Other than your world building, you know how to write lovely dialogue, and your prose is equally lovely.   Not many writers write with a style that is both fantastical yet so deep realistically, but you pull it off quite well.

Readers who haven’t read fantasy before would not want to start with Pegasus.   It’s a longer novel with a lot of world building and setup, and readers need to understand that going in to really get the experience.   Your characters are wonderful, and I really enjoyed the relationship dynamic between Sylvi and her bonded pegasus Ebon.   The facts of your world will delight and entrance readers, but some parts are genuinely slow because of information or the general easy pace of the narrative.   Pegasus isn’t the best of your best, but it’s still pretty good, and was easily one of my favorite books this year, even if it wasn’t as solid as some others on its own.   I’m so glad to see another facet for teens and adults to read your books in, because reading your books simply brightens my day.   B

All the best,

John

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Ever since a good friend brought him a copy of Johanna Lindsey's Gentle Rogue, he has been hooked on the romance genre. Though he primarily reads in young-adult, he loves to spend time with paranormal, historical, and contemporary adult titles in-between books. Now, he finds himself juggling book reviews, school band, writing, and finding time to add to his TBR pile.

16 Comments

  1. Nifty
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 08:45:19

    “The rest of the novel was much better with handing out information, but the first few chapters are heavy handed and will deter readers with low attention spans.”

    Okay, I think this is me. I have this book (Pegasus) in my nightstand drawer, but it’s not pulling me in. I keep meaning to pick it back up, because I do genuinely believe that Good Things Await Me if I can just get over this slow hump of disinterest, but every time I pull it out, my eyes fall on something like Kate Daniels or In Death, and I find myself veering off to the familiar and instantly immersible instead.

  2. Shaheen
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 09:37:42

    Are you 100% sure that Pegasus part 2 is coming out? McKinley has a bad habit of not returning to her worlds – Sunshine for example is just begging for a sequel.

  3. FD
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 10:02:08

    Pegasus part two is in progress as we speak according to her blog. She had half of it written and they simply chopped it for delivery into two books apparently.

    And Sunshine, at least according to her was never intended to have a sequel. I’m OK with that for what it’s worth – I love the final mental image of her venturing off into her future.

    I liked Pegasus – the mythic set up quality interspersed with all the little day to day details works for me. It is pretty slow paced, especially to begin with, and it’ll be a rainy day reread book for me rather than a bus or train book.

    John, I found the comment about the lack of romantic relationship between Sylvie and Ebon drawing people in interesting – I too am glad to see a YA fantasy oriented book where there are love objects who aren’t romantic love objects.

  4. Niveau
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 12:13:37

    Sunshine was never supposed to have a sequel, even though many readers seem to want one, whereas Pegasus was always never intended to be a stand-alone.

    Arrrrg, a new McKinley book came out and I didn’t notice! What is wrong with me these days? *schedules brain for checkup* Ah, it’s still in hardcover. That explains it – broke me avoids looking at those tempting beasts for fear of becoming more broke.

    ‘Cept now I really really wanna read it anyway… no fair, John, nicely reviewing a book by an author I love when I can’t afford it. No fair at all! If you’ll excuse me, I have to go sulk. At the bookstore. Where I may or may not hide myself in a corner and be one of the naughty customers who reads without buying.

    I’m also psyched about the non-romantic love interest – seriously, I love me some romance, but I’m getting sick of YA fantasy guys only existing for relationship purposes. I have guy friends with whom I’m never going to have a romantic relationship, and we’re quite happy that way. I wish this were reflected in YA more often, I really do.

  5. LauraB
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 12:29:36

    Ah… McKinley! Her Blue Sword is one of the few books I read over and over again. I just love it.

  6. Jessica
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 13:28:16

    I just loved this book and actually did think it was one of her best. Except maybe Spindle’s End which is my very favorite. In some ways as the first half of a book, it is hard to judge. I can’t wait for the sequel which is coming in 2012.

  7. Shaheen
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 15:51:08

    “Ah… McKinley! Her Blue Sword is one of the few books I read over and over again. I just love it.”
    Me too! Except, funnily enough, in audio book form – where it is deadly. Possibly because I’ve read it so many times that I have all the intonations perfect in my head, and the narrator just got it wrong – for me at least.
    It was my first McKinley, and is a great and unusual world. Hero and the Crown is sadly ordinary in comparison (although still very good by other standards).
    P.S. Sunshine might be intended to be a standalone, but I’ve always felt that that world could be revisited. I’m not usually an advocate of sequel after sequel, but why waste good world-building?

  8. John
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 17:09:51

    @Jessica: Me too, although I couldn’t ignore some of the issues other readers would have with it. I get a little too captivated by her work to be able to judge it critically at first, but after sitting on it for a bit it helped.

  9. SandyH
    Dec 01, 2010 @ 21:47:29

    I will definitely be buying this book. I have most of Robin’s books and love them. Beauty is my favorite. I would also recommend to adults Deerskin – it is a very powerful book but it deals with the subject of incest and recovery so I would not consider it a YA book unless read in a discussion group.

  10. Janine
    Dec 02, 2010 @ 01:05:18

    Nice review. I haven’t been able to get into McKinley’s works (I’ve tried to read Beauty and a short story whose title I don’t remembers) but she is one of those authors whose books readers adore so much that I wish I could get into them.

  11. FD
    Dec 02, 2010 @ 08:38:55

    @Shaheen: Re Sunshine’s worldbuilding, McKinley has mentioned on her blog that she has an idea for another story set in that world, called Albion, but that she doesn’t know when or if it’ll ever get a turn in the publishing schedule.

    Pondering the idea of wasted worldbuilding now… I’m not sure it quite gells for me. Can you explain?

  12. MrsJoseph
    Dec 02, 2010 @ 09:22:35

    Thanks for a wonderful review! My book club was debating between Sunshine & Pegasus. We decided on Sunshine just yesterday :-( but I’m sure we’ll revist this book suggestion again after this review. I, too, am a huge fan of the Blue Sword series. I’m never too sure which is my favorite: The Hero and the Crown or The Blue Sword…

  13. Estara
    Dec 03, 2010 @ 13:09:37

    I have to say this was a weaker McKinley for me as I found Sylvi too passive and too thinky. I loved the world and I hated the cliffhanger ending.

    I will read the second book for the other characters and the world, and I would recommend for people who want a complete story to wait until the second book is out.

  14. Teresa
    Dec 05, 2010 @ 20:34:30

    Liked the world building. Did not know if was part of a duet and therefore hated that there was a cliffhanger. I liked Sylvi except the “I’m an ugly, awkward human, woe is me” dialogue that she had with herself became annoying. Really enjoyed her interactions with the Pegasi.

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