Robin McKinley


A stand-alone fantasy book.

Publication year: 2003
Format: print
Page count: 476
Publisher: Bantam Books

“Besides, I’ve always had a guilty preference for fiction. Since I seemed now to be living fiction, this proved to have been an entirely reasonable choice.”

Rae Seddon, called Sunshine, works in Charlie’s Coffeehouse as the baker. She makes the cinnamon buns and chocolate desserts, and is much loved by both the staff and the regulars. Her step-father owns the place and her mother runs the administrative side. Her boyfriend also works there as the main cook. However, Rae is a loner and when something life changing happens to her, she doesn’t want to talk about it to anyone. She loves reading fiction about the Others and also following news about them in the globenet.

One day, when she wants to be alone and away from her extended family in the coffeehouse, she drives to the lake where her paternal grandmother used to live. There, she’s kidnapped by a gang of vampires. She expects to die but they bring her to an abandoned mansion and chain her to the wall. To her horror, the room already has another occupant: a emaciated vampire.

Apparently, the vampire group’s leader, Bo, wants the chained vampire to drink from Rae and kill her. To that end, they keep her alive and bleeding. However, the vampire asks Rae to talk with him so that he will remain sane. Rae has no choice but to agree. That’s just the beginning.

Little by little, we find out about Rae’s background and about the world. Rae’s mother divorced her father and refused to have anything to do with him again. Rae’s mother and her new husband Charlie have two sons. Rae’s grandmother was the only one on her father’s side who kept in touch with her but even Gran disappeared years ago.

The world has several non-human races, the demons, the weres, and the Darkest of Others: the vampires. Demons and weres can pass for human and some of them do when they can. The purebloods and partbloods are technically required by law to register but most only do so when they can’t pass for human anymore. Most of the weres aren’t wolves. They tend to be coyotes, rats, and chickens and all sorts of animals. Werewolves are rare. This amused me enormously. There was a war, The Voodoo Wars, between the humans and the Others over ten years ago and this of course made an huge impact on the relations between humans and Others.

In addition to Others, there are humans who can use magic. Some of them do this openly, especially those who belong to magic using families and some keep quiet about it. All of this combines to a world were humans aren’t the top dogs, so to speak, but struggling to be the dominant one. Charms and wards are also commonly used against the Others and for other things. There is a special police force whose job it is to deal with the Others, SOF, Special Other Forces.

The writing style is very chatty, like Sunshine is telling the story to somebody else and specifically someone who doesn’t know her world at all. This is, of course, easier on the reader than not explaining things.

I enjoyed the characters a lot; they felt very real. Sunshine herself is a loner and a fiction lover. Charlie wants to feed everyone in his café, and Sunshine’s mother is very protective of Rae and her family. Rae and her mother don’t communicate too well, mostly by yelling at each other, but her mother leaves charms around Sunshine to make sure she’s safe.

Mel is an interesting character. He’s a (former) motorcycle gang member with lots of tattoos. It’s hinted that he still has friends among the motorcycle gang, er, cycles but we don’t see them much. He’s a cook/bouncer for Charlie’s and also repairs and reconstructs motorcycles. He’s clearly very fond of Sunshine but they’re both very private people and they don’t communicate much or easily. At first, Sunshine commented on how good it is that she’s able to just be with Mel and he doesn’t ask thing but later, that silence isn’t so good.

Unfortunately, Sunshine develops feelings for a vampire despite being with Mel and knowing that she’s nothing but food to the vampire. Bah.

I love the way that the characters swore. “Thank the gods and angels” and “double carthaginian hell”, “near kali goddam enough”, and “the city council thought it would be totally thor”. These seem to be a clear indication that monotheism isn’t the dominant religion. Also, nobody waves crosses or other religious items in front of the vampires. Wards are used instead.

About halfway through I had to got out and buy some cinnamon rolls.

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A stand alone fantasy book.

Publication year: 2000
Format: print
Page count: 354
Publisher: ACE

Spindle’s End starts (mostly) with the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. However, unlike in the Disney version, the princess is one of the main characters and there’s no handsome prince to save the day.

The unnamed country where the story takes place is very thick with magic. Very thick. Things can spontaneously change into something else without any warning. Water is especially dangerous because it’s so malleable and fish are almost unheard of. However, most of the people in this country are ordinary although they have a habit of asking things to stay themselves. Fairies are humans who use magic openly. They create charms and cast spells to help people.

When the country’s queen finally has a child, the king and queen invite a representative of every village in the country to the infant princess’ naming day. Originally, they wanted to invite everyone, but this wasn’t practical, so a messager goes to every village with enchanted straws to choose a person randomly.

Katriona is the representative of her village, the Foggy Bottom. She’s 16, and lives with her Aunt who is the most powerful fairy in the village and also a sensible and clear headed woman. Katriona is convinced that she’s not a fairy, though. She walks for several weeks to the capital. During the celebration, she meets a strange man who gives her a very powerful amulet and when a wicked fairy Pernicia arrives uninvited and casts a deadly spell on the infant princess, Katriona alone has the strength to move and she does her best to protect the baby. However, it isn’t enough and the queen’s personal fairy charges Katriona with the care and protection of the little princess until the fairy, Sigil, can send word that it’s safe for the baby to return. Then Sigil teleports the baby and Katriona outside the city, and Katriona begins the long trek back home.

Katriona has the gift of speaking with animals and so she can ask the animals, both wild and domesticated, to help the baby during the journey. Otherwise, there would have been no milk for the baby. Finally, they reach Foggy Bottom and Katriona and Aunt start to wait. And wait.

Meanwhile, the whole country is an uproar: people are afraid of the curse and it’s said that the princess has been taken to safety while the royal army looks for Pernicia. Also, the king demands that there will be no more spindle ends with sharp points in the whole country. A whole industry develops around beautifully carved spindle ends.

While Katriona and Aunt wait for word from the royal fairy, the princess is named Rosie and she grows in the small village as one of the village girls. Rosie is able to talk with animals and makes friends with many of them.

This is a charming re-imagining of the fairy tale. Many of the elements of the story are there but told differently. For example, there are fairy godmothers who give gifts to the little princess but they don’t really work the way they are supposed to. For example, Rosie gets golden hair which twists into ringlets, and white, flawless skin, and blue eyes, but they don’t actually make her pretty. Pernicia’s curse says that she can kill the princess any time before her 21st birthday, not just on that day. Also, in many fairy tales the main character is a man, usually the youngest son. However, Spindle’s End is centered on women.

The main POV character for the first half of the book is Katriona who struggles with her duty to the princess which seems enormous to her, in her young age. Later, the main POV shifts to Rosie when she grows up. There are also brief passages with other POV characters.

The main theme of the book is love; love of family. The queen loves her absent child desperately and longs to see her again. Katriona and Aunt love their adopted little princess and do everything they can to protect her. Katriona is in love with the local wheelwright’s apprentice but they are too poor to marry. Fortunately, there’s not much angst about it. Later, other romantic loves enter the story and there is some angst over them and some misunderstandings as well which I didn’t really care for, but they don’t overwhelm the story and feel rather natural (except for the blighted misunderstanding). However, love of family is seen as the strong bond that can unite people against evil and not having it, like one unfortunate secondary character, can make you miserable and yearn for affection from other people.

Magic is another strong part of the book. Most people don’t have much magic of their own except for babies; some babies produce so much magic that they have to be sent away to fairies for a few years so that their strong magic can be handled without permanent damage. There a few funny stories about it. Magic is also described as willful and not wanting to be handled; not at all like science. Not surprisingly, there’s strong rivalry between village fairies, who are usually women, and the Academy trained magicians, who are usually men. Priests struggle in the middle. Also, the popular opinion is the the royal family should be free of magic and so the reigning monarch’s spouse is mostly chosen for her (or his) lack of magic.

This isn’t an action oriented story at all. It’s very much a growing up story first for Katriona and then for Rosie. Some things might seem a bit too convenient, especially the ending. Of course, that is the nature of fairy tales.

This is McKinley’s second rewrite of the fairy tale of the Beauty and the Beast. It feels more magical than the previous Beauty. The world has sorcerers, greenwitches, and magicians but none of them are described in any detail; they’re just a part of the background.

The essential gradients of the story are the same and the difference and the meat of the story is in the details. The story focuses entirely on Beauty and her development.

Beauty is the youngest of three daughters; her eldest sister is called Lionheart because of her bravery and her other sister is called Jeweltongue because of her sharp tongue. Ever since Beauty was a small child she has had a nightmare about walking down a long hallway and there’s a beast waiting for her at the end of the hall…

The sisters live in grand style in the city as daughters of a wealthy merchant. Unfortunately, the merchant’s fortunes turn and he is left destitute. Everyone abandons the family and their father suffers a mental breakdown. Beauty goes through her father’s papers and notices the only thing that they still own: a little cottage near the town of Longchance. They gather their little belongings and leave.

They join a merchant caravan and while traveling with them, the sisters find out their special abilities: Lionheart is an excellent cook who can make a big meal out of small ingredients and Jeweltounge is just as good with mending and making clothes. They reach the Rose Cottage and settle there. Beauty finds out that she’s an excellent gardener when she nurses the plants around the cottage back to life. The cottage itself is surrounded by big bushes and she doesn’t at first recognize what plant they are because she’s never seen anything like them. But the next spring they bloom full of roses.

The villages are kind to the newcomers. Lionheart also finds out that she has a knack with horses and so she dresses up as a man and becomes a stable boy at the local squire’s stables. One day one of the villagers talks about a curse around the Rose Cottage when three sisters live there. Beauty is the only one to hear about it but she’s afraid to ask more and she doesn’t mention it to the others.

A couple of years go by and the sisters manage to make a living; Jeweltounge making clothing for the people in the town, Lionheart taking care of horses, and Beauty growing vegetables and making wreaths out of her roses. Even their father has recovered. Then they get a word that one of his ships has come to the harbor full of goods. The father goes back to the city and to the ship, hoping that he can get enough money from the goods that he can settle some of their debts. On his way back, he is lost in a snowstorm and finds a vast, empty, perhaps a magical palace where he spends the night. When he’s leaving, he takes the rose which is in a vase at the table where he has eaten to take it back to Beauty. Instantly, the Beast is upon him. The Beast demands that the merchant’s daughter comes back to pay for the theft of the rose. The merchant flees in horror.

Despite the pleading of her father and sisters, Beauty goes to the Beast’s palace. She doesn’t know what to expect.

McKinley tells the classic fairy tale in very much a magical manner. The theme of love is, of course, strongest but also the theme of transition to another life or another part of life. Change can be frightening at first but is only a part of life. The sisters grow also very close together after they lose the wealth they had and can only rely on each other.

While in the book “Beauty”, the magical library was very much in the center of the story, here the roses and gardening are at center stage.

Deerskin isn’t a light read. It deals with the aftermaths of brutal violation; how a person can deal with it and rise above it or not. So people looking for bloody battle scenes and a few titillating rape scenes are going to be disappointed.

The story starts in a fairy tale manner and it does have a fairy tale-like quality to it through out the story. However, it’s far more darker than most modern, sanitized fairy tales. Also, this story does appear to happen in the same world as The Blue Sword and the Hero and the Crown. There is one sentence that talks about Aerin and the Dragon. There are a few small dragons in the story as well, which remind me of tHatC’s small dragons.

Once upon a time there was princess who was the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms. Her father loved her so much that he set impossible tasks to the suitors. But one of the princes captured her heart and managed to do him tasks. And so they were married. However, this is not their tale. This is the tale of their only child, a daughter who grew up so much in the shadow of her magnificent parents that practically nobody even remembered her, not even her parents and certainly not the people she was destined to rule one day.

When she was still a little girl, her mother the Queen fell ill. Everyone where frantic and especially her father the King who seemed to go mad with grief. In time the Queen died and the whole country mourned for her forgetting everything and everyone else. The King received many, many grand mourning gifts but her daughter got only one: a fleethound puppy from a young prince. The puppy, Ash, brings love and hope to the princesses’ life and she founds out that she isn’t as powerless and insignificant as she has thought. She makes some changes in her life; she has never had a friend before but now she finds a friend in Ash and then Viaka, another girl at the court, and later an old herbalist who teaches the princess the use of some plants.

But the princess starts to take after her mother in beauty and eventually the courtiers and even her father notices this. She tries her best to continue in her live and ignore this even though she starts to feel that something is wrong. Then comes her seventeenth birthday and the ball where she was supposed to meet her first suitors. But her father doesn’t want that. He dances with his daughter the whole night and then the King announces that he will marry his daughter.

The poor princess goes half mad and barricades herself into her room with her beloved dog since everyone else has abandoned her. Alas, the half-mad king forces his way into her room, almost kills Ash, beats her, and rapes her. She almost dies. Her beloved Ash brings her back to life. She has lost most of her memory and staggers out to escape the castle. Her beloved dog with her, she sets out to survive a harsh winter on her own and to continue with her life.

McKinley writes a heart-wrenching tale about the love and devotion between a girl and her dog, and the girl’s struggle with identity after her ordeal. She can also surprise the reader. Just when I thought I knew what would come next, most of the time I was wrong. I was even wrong about how it would end. And her language is absolutely beautiful, dreamy and horrible at the same time.

Some people might have trouble believing that a princess could grow up so forgotten and sheltered; that someone would at least try to take advantage of an only heir. But that part isn’t meant to be believable. It has a fairy tale beginning showing what can happen if the people involved could be as beautiful and perfect as they are in the tales.

There are a lot of things in the book which in the hands of a less skilled writer would have made to book sink into angst and Mary Sue-dom. McKinley manages to avoid them quite stylishly. Even though the book doesn’t contain the kinds of porn (both sexual and violent, both equally unnecessary and explicit) that today almost every (fantasy) book needs to be labelled adult, I’d still hesitate to call it a YA. There’re no real teenager-growing-up bits.

Aerin could have been a whiny Mary Sue: she’s the daughter of the king’s second wife who is whispered to have been a witch and therefore she isn’t accepted by anyone except by her father and her cousin who happens to be the second highest born male in the country. Because the people won’t accept her, the king can’t make her an heir even though she’s his only child. So she grows up almost friendless in the confines of the castle. Her only real friend turns out to be Talat, the king’s maimed warhorse.

McKinley manages to make her a sympathetic character and during the most of the book I got a feeling of melancholy from her. True, she is first special-in-reverse because she can’t do the magic that all the other nobles can, and there are a couple of bully characters out to get her, but they don’t really feel annoying. Her, uh, speciallness was starting to grate a tiny bit towards the end of the book but it still felt totally in-character and fit in the world. Although Talat is more than a bit more intelligent than a horse can be.

The book starts with a few chapters in the present where the king and his men are preparing to ride to confront demonic mischief in the North and Aerin wants to join her. She’s taunted at being the Dragon-Killer and denied a place in the war party. Then we get a bunch of flashback chapters of her life and then the story proceeds from the current time.

While I’m not a fan of flashbacks, the structure worked quite well in this book. I quite liked the end and Luthe, too.

Oh yes, the dragons. Almost all of the dragons in this book are knee-high vermins who can breathe fire. Their killing is not a glamorous work and therefore Aerin is basically called rat-killer. That’s the first time I’ve seen that kind of dragons. Of course, there has to be at least one big dragon but that it’s to be expected. That was handled very well, too, and I especially liked what came afterwards because very often in fantasy books the aftermaths of battles are nonexistent.

I read this one a while ago but don’t really know what else to say except that I liked it, mostly, but it had also some rather irritating fantasy clichés.

Harry is young noble woman who loses both her mother and father. Since she can’t inherit anything as a woman, she has to go to her brother who’s an officer in the army. Harry has to travel from the lush green forests from her childhood to a barren desert. While many newcomers don’t really fit into the hot climate, she grows to enjoy it. She loves horses and rides daily with a couple of other officers’ kinswomen.

The setting for the story resembles 19th century India with the native Hillfolk who live in the desert and are famous for their horses, fierceness, and survival skills. On the other hand, there are the newcomers, Outlanders, who have conquered much of the surrounding lands with their guns and have outposts near the desert.

Harry is unhappy and waits for something or someone else to change her life and someone does: the king of the Hillfolk kidnaps her and takes her to his tribe. The Hillfolk are facing a desperate fight against inhuman forces and the king hopes that Harry can help him unite the tribes and give them some hope of victory.

This is one of the best growing-up stories I’ve ever read. There are some, rather small things, that irritated me, but I did really like this book. The setting was good and unique (as far as I know) in fantasy. The magic was rather low-key but in the end central and necessary for the tale.

7/10

McKinley has a very beautiful writing style. Even though “Beauty” is longer than “the Blue Sword” or the Hero and the Crown, it doesn’t feel like it. Indeed, Beauty feels quite short considering that there aren’t any adventuring or swashbuckling in it, just a love story.

As far as I can tell, “Beauty” follows the fairy tale closely. I’m tempted to say that who-ever wrote the screenplay for the Disney version, must have read this book a couple of time for the self-moving plates and teapots. But I haven’t actually read any earlier versions of the tale, so I can’t really say.

Even though the main character Beauty is said to be only 17, her narrator-self seems rather more mature. Of course, she is telling the story afterwards so the feel can be intentional. The only thing that really seemed teenaged about her was the way she considered herself to be not-attractive.

The MC Beauty is the youngest of three daughters and she considers herself to be plain compared to her beautiful sisters. Even her name starts out as ironic. She has a huge war-horse Greatheart whom she has taken care of since he was a foal. When her merchant father loses him fortune and has to move into the countryside, Beauty can keep her beloved horse.

war-horse Greatheart whom she has The book is really a girl (and her horse)-meets-a-boy story just like the tale. On the face of it, it’s a beautiful love story. However, there are some other things below the surface.

The age difference between the girl and the man creeped me. He was 200 and she 17? The fact the at the end of the book she notices that she has GROWN during the time she spent in the palace, made it all the more creepier for me. Dude! She’s still a growing girl! Ewww.

The whole “suddenly I’m tall and beautiful” thing? Sigh. Some of us are short and plain, and even we would like to feel like the heroine just once. This was a huge letdown even though I suspected it at the start. For a while I sort of hoped that it might be just “clothes make a girl beautiful” thing but of course not.

Separating a girl from everyone else to make her love you? That sounds more like Stockholm syndrome to me and a justification for a kidnapping. it at the start. Do like the s that tss, it’ and

But all of those came to mind later. I rather enjoyed the book while I read it.

7/10