Thanks to the recommendations of our own Sam, and our friend Elizabeth at Oboechica Books, this week I read Pegasus by Robin McKinley.
Overview: McKinley has been writing women-centered spectulative fiction since the 70s, but Pegasus is her newest novel, with its sequel due out next year. It focuses on the young Princess Sylviianel, who, according to the tradition of her people, is ceremonially bound to a member of the pegasus royal family on her twelfth birthday. For most human/pegasus pairs, the binding is merely symbolic, as the humans and pegasi must communicate through limited hand signals and the assistance of a human magician called a Speaker. The two species coexist peacefully, but cannot consider themselves friends due to this divide. This has been “the way things are” for a thousand years.
The Good: But Sylvi and her pegasus, Ebon, change everything. At their binding, they discover they can communicate perfectly – without the aid of a magician. Their friendship is definitely the highlight of the novel. Ebon is brash, outspoken, and opinionated, with a great sense of humor. He is a perfect balance to the more reserved, intellectual Sylvi, who as the youngest and smallest member of her family is used to coming last at court. In fact, McKinley is really gifted at characterization, and some of my other favorite characters include Sylvi’s mother, the queen, a warrior who refuses to retire, and the queen’s bound pegasus who communicates even more poorly with humans than most pegasi, yet somehow manages to be very soft and empathetic. I also appreciated the depiction of Sylvi’s relationship with both her parents as loving and grounded, since the trope in YA fiction seems to be to get rid of the parents to give the main character more freedom.
The Not-So-Good: However, I had a big problem with this novel’s pacing – and having read some other reviews, this seems to be a universal problem. The first half of Pegasus read a lot like Tolkien’s The Silmarillion: a kind-of-interesting history lesson that you sit through so you can get to the MORE awesome stories of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. The history of Balsinland, the human kingdom, and Rhiandomeer, the pegasus kingdom, IS important – it’s relevant for us to know that the human/pegasus means of communication has been strained and difficult for a thousand years. But McKinley’s method of delivering this information to the reader is less than graceful and it mostly gets dumped on us in big chunks. The book didn’t feel like it really started until halfway through, when Sylvi, as a sixteenth birthday gift, is granted the chance to visit Rhiandomeer, something no human has ever done.
And speaking of pacing, I had no clue until I finished the book that it was part of a series. I’m not sure how other readers feel, but this was problematic for me, since I was distracted for the last 100 pages or so wondering how the heck McKinley was going to wrap this up. Nowhere on the cover (at least of my edition) did it announce that there would be a sequel, and the fact that it doesn’t yet have a working title (except for Pegasus II) makes me sort of feel that a second book may have been an accident. Like, “whoops, this is getting really long, I better just stop here and pick up again in 2014.” It was jarring for me to find out at the end that a novel that seemed to be a standalone in fact was not, although this may be more of a marketing/advertising flaw than a flaw in McKinley’s writing.
|Beautiful fanart by Leashe on deviantART|
Takeaway: A highly enjoyable second half of the novel, if you can power through the lengthy first half. Rhiandomeer and pegasus culture is fascinating, subtle, and fully-fleshed out, and Sylvi and Ebon’s friendship will make you wish YOU could have a pegasus best friend. There are some great fantasy elements at play here, including a mysterious and powerful Sword, human magicians with unclear motivations, and, in a foreshadowing of the next book, an invasion of dangerous, supernatural creatures into Balsinland. I fully anticipate that Pegasus II will be a more refined, honed version of Pegasus, without the same issues of pace, since much of the world-building has already been accomplished. I’ll be looking forward to it!