Robin McKinley is an American-born and British resident writer of fantasy whose books are generally marketed at the ‘Young Adult’ market, though not all of her books can be so described. I first encountered her novel ‘The Blue Sword’ as a teenager in my school library, which tells the story of Harry (Angharad) Crewe, living a bored life in a colonial desert border town not unlike that of the British Raj, who is kidnapped by the king of the neighbouring country who is at open war with his neighbours to the north, but not yet at war with Harry’s ‘Homelanders’. It’s more than a sword and sorcery epic, though Harry learns to wield both, with its culture clashes and misunderstandings, and her growing love for her new home. McKinley fleshes out her world, so that Damar has history and geography, as well as her characters. A prequel, ‘The Hero and the Crown’ tells the story of Aerin, whom Harry encounters in The Blue Sword as merely a legend and a vision. Here, she’s entirely real – stubborn, awkward and diffident – a king’s daughter with an uncertain position, until she discovers a remedy against dragon fire, and makes a place for herself as a killer of dragons (who are mostly small and nasty rather than really dangerous), before she attempts to kill the Black Dragon, Maur, an altogether different proposition. This book is rather more complex than its predecessor, for Aerin and her situation are delicately placed and surrounded by ill-wishers, and I find it more contemplative and less gung-ho than The Blue Sword.
She has written a few short stories set in the world of Damar, but so far has not returned to it for another novel. McKinley is also known for her fairy-tale retellings. These include:
- Beauty – a re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, which fleshes out the characters beautifully, and makes the unpleasant sisters of legend into nice people with their own believable reasons for behaving in the way they do.
- Rose Daughter – also a re-telling of the same fairy-tale, but less conventional.
- Spindle’s End – a wonderful re-telling of Sleeping Beauty, energetic and magical, but filled with menace and love. Rosie, the heroine, is a sparky and attractive girl, a bit of a tomboy, and the setting is vividly described.
- Deerskin – rather an unsettling but very moving telling of the usually bowdlerised fairy tale ‘Donkeyskin’, but which is full of the redemptive power of love – both the human and animal variety. Lissla Lissar, the wronged protagonist, is an unforgettable heroine, though some parts of her story are hard to read.
- ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’ have been retold as short stories (collected with a few others in The Door in the Hedge) – I particularly like ‘The Princess and the Frog’, in which the Princess and the frog save each other from harm and a curse.
- Also a ‘re-telling’ is The Outlaws of Sherwood, which is the Robin Hood legend again, in which Marian is the better archer, but in which the camaraderie of the forest as well as its dangers and perils are shown.
Then there are stand-alone fantasies such as Dragonhaven and Chalice, more recent works, and a stunning vampire novel, Sunshine. Dragonhaven is set in a world which is recognisably ours, except for the existence of dragons. Jake and his family live in one of the parks where a dragon species is said to live, but very few people actually encounter. As a young teenager, he comes across a dying mother dragon in the wilderness and is able to take the baby and nurture it himself, not without some subterfuge and help from more experienced staff, since he knows that his father would insist that Jake avoid all contact with the baby if he knew. It’s an entertaining read, and the details of the dragons and their habits are comprehensive and detailed. I had a slight problem with the narrative voice – the story is told by Jake, and it’s a while before he mentions explicitly that he is a boy, which comes as something of a surprise.
Chalice is rather beautiful – slow and poetic – set in a place where the land must be bound and kept healed by a circle of powerful people having gifts in certain areas. Each local manor has a circle, headed by the Master, and aided by the Chalice. We enter the story as, due to an tragic accident, the new Chalice and the new Master try to do their duties without help or teaching. Like all of McKinley’s worlds, it’s beautifully realised, and there are plenty of details given which are not fully explained. The natural world, is described with love and reverence, and the bee-lore involved (for the Chalice has her power in honey) is fascinating.
Lastly, Sunshine (not to be confused with the film of the same title). There are lots of vampire novels around – Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, for example, or Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse books, not to mention the ubiquitous Twilight series – but I’d venture to say that Sunshine is far better than any of these. It’s set in a world like ours, but which has been devastated by unearthly wars and spillages of black magic, and where vampires and other such Others (demons, magic-users, et alia) are known and dangerous. Rae Seddon, who works as a baker in her family’s cafe, goes out one evening, having felt restless and unwilling to endure another family evening, down to the lake. There she is kidnapped by a gang of vampires who tie her up in an empty house – empty, that is, except for the presence of another vampire. The next morning she is still alive, and she and the vampire, Constantine, join forces to escape.
McKinley weaves a fantastic world in this novel, full of interesting details and things not quite explained. She does an excellent job in making her vampire hero sympathetic without making the other vampires into anything but really unpleasant creatures. Rae encounters help from the unlikeliest of sources, and rediscovers her latent magical talent, in an attempt to help herself and Constantine defeat their antagonist, the vampire Beauregard, or Bo.
Rae is a wonderful heroine, stubborn and solitary, who argues with her mother and loves to bake; compassionate and bookish. Her relationships with others – not just Constantine and her family, but her friends – are convincing and realistic, and the post-war ambience is cleverly realised.
I like all of McKinley’s books, but I think Sunshine is my favourite. In most of her books, her main protagonists are girls or young women faced with challenges, often daunting, and while they do have help from others (and often fall in love during the course of the novel), they overcome their difficulties by using their own latent talents and knowledge (and often, sheer cussed determination). I’d think they could be read equally well by men, though I guess their prime attraction is for girls and women who like reading about strong, flawed and determined heroines.