Robin McKinley is a writer whose books I almost always buy in hardback, since I’m too impatient to wait for the paperback issue. However, I’d actually hesitated about getting this, her latest, until I read a couple of reviews by the Literary Omnivore and Erin at Aelia Reads. I gave in and got the book, and I loved it, though I was glad I’d already had the heads-up that this was not a complete novel.
In this fantasy novel, humans have colonised a land and made a treaty with the pegasi who live there: in exchange for sharing the land, the humans will help the pegasi defend themselves against the creatures such as rocs, taralians and other such beasts. As part of the treaty, some humans, particularly in the royal family and in families into which they are likely to marry, are bound to pegasi in ceremonies conducted by human magicians. Each bound pair, however, need translators – Speakers – since the human language and the pegasus language are mutually unintelligible, though some pairs, like her father and the pegasus king, are able to achieve some communication without the use of a Speaker intermediary. All Speakers are magicians, though not all magicians are Speakers.
Our heroine is Princess Sylviianel, whom we meet at first at the age of twelve, about to be bound to her pegasus. She’s apprehensive about this, perhaps understandably, since her three elder brothers and parents haven’t been able to tell her much about what it’s like, and Sylvi is not the most confident of people anyway; a trait possibly exacerbated by the fact that she’s short.
The ceremony goes ahead, and Sylvi finds herself bound to a male pegasus named Ebon (also fourth child of the pegasus king), with whom she finds an immediate friendship and – more surprisingly – with whom she can talk directly. In fact, this communication is unprecedented, and the relationship between human and pegasus makes Sylvi an enemy of the chief magician, Fthoom. Her relationship with Ebon, however, is joyous – they go flying together, she lying on his back – and his pragmatic and clear-sighted take on human politics is refreshing to the princess brought up in a world where she has to consider all sorts of motives and alliances.
Four years pass, during which Sylvi and Ebon hide their flights from everyone (humans aren’t meant to ride pegasi), the incursions of creatures such as taralions increase, and the two learn more of each other’s cultures. Sylvi begins to have an idea that the magicians aren’t quite such a good thing as they say, partly aided by the comments about human magic which Ebon makes. For her sixteenth birthday, however, Ebon arranges that Sylvi will come to visit the pegasus country, something that no human has ever done before – it’s always pegasi who visit the human country.
This is, I think, one of McKinley’s best books (though only marred by the fact that there’s clearly a sequel required to complete the story). She pulls off the difficult feat of making the pegasi and their culture very alien and yet human enough to identify with – seen through Sylvi’s eyes – and the two worlds mesh beautifully. Pegasi are not merely winged horses, for example, though humans envy their ability to fly and pegasi envy humans their robust and capable hands. As with most of her novels, it’s wonderfully evoked, in sensuous prose, and, for a change, there’s a lot of good, naturalistic dialogue (sometimes McKinley is a bit sparing with her dialogue).
Fthoom makes a good antagonist, and most of the characters are well-drawn – though there are a lot of them, and most of Sylvi’s family have shortened nicknames which can be a little confusing.
Fthoom stood for a moment longer, swaying a little, like a tree that has felt the final stroke of the axe and will fall to earth in the next moment. And then he knelt, not carelessly this time, but heavily, and he needed Kachakon’s hand under his elbow to regain his feet. Another footman had opened the door, and he turned toward it. As he turned, his eyes swept across Sylvi’s face and paused there briefly; as his eyes met hers she saw how much he hated her, and she thought that if he had held her eyes even a moment longer he might have turned her into a slime-mould or newt after all. Again she was glad for Ebon, and for the not-quite-expressionless footman—for Ahathin—and for her father. But she wished—just for a moment—that she wasn’t a king’s daughter, even if that meant she would not have met Ebon…
Everything is told from Sylvi’s viewpoint, though in the third person, and the reader, maybe, spots things in the narrative that Sylvi doesn’t; or maybe it’s that she has too many other things to occupy her mind that she’s not willing to believe the worst of people, even if she dislikes them.
Anyway, this is a fantastic book, and I’m really looking forward to the concluding part, whenever it’s available.