Thursday, March 3, 2011

Review: Robin McKinley's Pegasus

Earlier, I talked about “the Moment” in Rampant, the one detail that makes you say “OK, Author! Take me on a journey!” Well, I was on board with Pegasus from the first page. Some of this openness was goodwill earned from the author’s previous books. The Blue Sword I count in my Top 10 of all time, and I couldn’t wait to revisit that world in The Hero and the Crown. I have a soft spot for both Beauty and Rose Daughter. Mostly though, it was her prose. Opening a Robin McKinley book is like running into a familiar friend: “Ahh, Ms. McKinley, how nice to read you again!” 

The beauty of the writing was greatly appreciated, because truly, Pegasus is a novel of world-building. To tell the story she wants to tell, McKinley first has to establish how pegasi and humans coexist. This means defining personal/interspecies relationships, cultures/ceremonies, traditions/rules, language/communication, shared/separate histories, inventions, commerce, magic, external/internal threats, the topography of two fictional realms, and of course, the physical look of the pegasi themselves. Are you exhausted yet? 

I sympathize with the author. That’s a lot to juggle before a plot can enter into the fray. Still, backstory is only compelling in how it affects the here and now, in particular the characters we come to care about. When these two elements intersect in Pegasus, the novel is interesting and even electrifying. Most of the time though, it feels like the balance is tipped too much toward the set-up.*

This was disappointing to me because I really do like the main characters, their families, and their friends. I even like the minor characters flitting around the edges.  McKinley has a way of creating such lovely distinct personalities. Even though there are a ton of people/pegasi, there is never any confusion of identity, no “who’s that again?” or “I’m not sure where they belong.”

Still, there was one thing I couldn’t get a grasp on, and it was a pretty big thing. I never—and still have not—figured out what the pegasi look like. I mean, I know what a pegasus looks like. Horses with wings seem pretty standard. Apparently, these pegasi are different from horses. They’re smaller, more delicate, with very fine legs, tiny hands on their wings, and a longer neck. (Shimmery, naturally.) As much as they were described, the parts just didn’t come together in my head in any anatomical way. 

Maybe it was my failure as a reader, but I think it could be a matter of incongruity. For instance, an author describes a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. Nothing else. The reader then creates a hazy portrait from those attributes. If the author mentions something about the girl’s freckles later, it’s OK. We can just add freckles to our mental picture. On the other hand, if the author mentions later that the girl is six feet tall, it jars the reader. When you ask someone to imagine a girl, it’s not often a six-foot tall girl. It simultaneously disrupts the mental picture and affects how the girl relates to other characters in the story.

My six-foot tall detail was pegasus hands—small with variable fingers (3-5 digits, I think no thumbs) and attached to their wings. The things is, I don’t understand how they moved their wings to allow use of their hands in front of them. I assumed pegasus wings were like bird wings, able to extend out but not rotate/stretch forward. Even if you place the hands on the bends of the wings (the “backwards elbows”), I’m still not sure how they sculpt, manipulate small objects, make paper, or tie knots. 

Maybe I’m being picky, but I think I have a point. If vampires are tied to immortality/sexuality, werewolves are tied to humanity/humanity’s animal side, and unicorns are tied to virginity, pegasi are tied to flight.** How they move their wings is a big deal. Or at least it is to me. Call me a geek, call me invested, but I will be reading the second volume, so you can call me both. 

*Yes, there is a second novel on the way. It should more plotty now that the backstory’s out of the way. What a cliffhanger on the last few pages of this one! Looking forward to it.

**In ancient Greece where the Pegasus myth originated, a horse with wings helped a mortal fly and kill a monster. (The other flight myth didn’t work out so well. Not that this one ended so happily, but at least Bellerophon got some glory before his tragic hubris-induced end.) All other methods of flight were gods-only, but the Pegasus offered freedom that was previously out of reach.

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