A Book to Share: Pegasus by Robin McKinley

Like innumerable little girls before me, I once longed with every fiber of my being to possess a horse of my very, very own.  I don’t know what it is about little girls and horses.  So many of us just can’t seem to resist them.

"The Man From Snowy River" film was like a love song to horses. There were a dozen beautiful scenes of running wild horses... *sigh*

I probably had it worse than most.  I collected hundreds of models that covered most of the flat surfaces of my bedroom.  I had posters and calendars and bookmarks covered in horses.  I had books about horses to put my bookmarks in and movies about horses for when I stopped reading.  Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley were my literary heroes.  The Black Stallion and The Man From Snowy River gave me shivers of delight every time I watched them, though I confess I wanted fewer people and more horses in the screenshots.  Silly humans cluttering up a good horse movie!

I began to grow out of it, although never really.  Horses still manage to sneak their way into my novels as stronger characters than your average hero’s mount.  They get names, descriptions, and personalities.  I still get a horse calendar every now and again.  I still blurt out “Look! Horses!” every time I pass a field of pretty ones while I’m in the car.  And I still love riding whenever I get the chance, which is rarely.  While dragons did eventually supplant horses as my favorite animal, I still do love horses and they are gratifyingly easier to locate than dragons.

So, when I go to the bookstore and see a series of fantasy books in which horses figure largely, I often pause to look and see what it’s all about.  I enjoyed reading a few of the Herald books by Mercedes Lackey and I still sometimes think that Shadowfax is my favorite “character” in Lord of the Rings.

As I was meandering the bookstore and looking for a couple new books, one of which was Entwined, which I reviewed last week, I also happened upon the newest novel by Robin McKinely, author of Sunshine and The Hero and the Crown as well as many other novels.  I recognized the author as one I enjoy, but that wasn’t what got my attention.  It was the title: Pegasus and the cover, figuring a black pegasus descending on a field where a girl in green stands watching.

Well, I couldn’t not pick that one up.

The book spends a lot of time setting up the world and the history.  The very beginning features the heroine, Princess Sylviianel (Sylvi) doing her lessons with her magician tutor and learning about the treaty between humans and pegasi that serves as a foundation for everything that has come afterward.  I found the constant references to the history and cultures of the two peoples very interesting.  On the other hand, I sometimes felt that the book was taking up so much time providing a history of the world that nothing was actually happening.  That, I think, was probably the major drawback to the book.  But then, I still read all 400 pages and stayed up way too late to read “just one more chapter” so it definitely retained my interest.

And yes, a large part of that was the pegasi.  McKinley does a brilliant job of creating her own pegasus, a creature that is like and unlike a horse, nothing like the traditional pegasus in many ways.  With a shorter, wider body (to accommodate a larger lung capacity), long, long wings, and a small head that connects delicate and birdlike to the neck, these pegasi are not horses with wings.  They are their own race.

Pretty much every picture of a pegasus you see is extraordinarily dramatic, pastel, and has moonbeams or flowers. I prefer the ones that look like real horses instead of My Little Ponies.

Most distinguishing of all is that the pegasi have at the bends of their wings small “alula-hands” which are delicate, weak, but nimble little hands that they use for things like weaving, papermaking, and sculpting. While the humans envy the pegasi their flight, the pegasi envy the humans their strong, flexible hands.

The story focuses on Sylvi and her pegasus.  According to an Alliance formed long ago, the pegasi and humans, though unable to speak to each other without magicians to translate, have a tradition of bonding their leading members to each other.  The aristocrats and royalty of each race meet when the human child is aged twelve, and each human and pegasus pair becomes a representation of the Alliance.  The bond was originally supposed to allow better communication between each pair, but it has not worked out that way and the magicians stepped in to be Speakers, translators between the races.

And then there were Sylvi and Ebon.  From the moment they meet, they can speak mind to mind.  This might not seem like such a bad thing, but it causes a huge uproar and the objections from the magicians imply that there has been something dark and insidious at work within the tradition of binding from the very beginning.

As Sylvi and Ebon struggle through the political intrigues, the rising threat from dangerous creatures that have been long subdued implies that there is much more to come in the sequel to this book.

Now, as for my very favorite bits about this book, I can’t help becoming a little girl surrounded by model horses again.  The pegasi are lovely and so well formed.

"Clash of the Titans" was one of the worst movies I have ever seen, but they did one thing that made me bounce in my chair for joy: they had a beautiful black pegasus!

However, McKinley also gives them interesting personalities, particularly the big, black pegasus Ebon.  Ebon is mischievous, humorous, opinionated, and not at all the transcendent being that I was afraid McKinley would make all the pegasi be.  I also like the dynamic between Sylvi and her parents and siblings.  There is genuine affection and her parents are distinct, likeable people.

As for the things that I found less inspiring, I already mentioned the “history-book” feeling I got sometimes.  It made me want to skim, which I hate when I’m trying to really sit back and enjoy a good read.  Other than that, I did have a bit of a problem with how good she made the pegasi.  I was relieved to see that they have personalities, humor, and a variety of emotions that make them feel real.  However, there is not a single bad pegasus.  All the villains are humans or monsters.  Are the pegasi really all that good?  Is there not one unlikeable one?  There might be a formidable or shy pegasus, but none who are annoying or just plain bad.  Sometimes the pegasi seemed a little too glorified, as if they were truly angelic.

I will certainly read the sequel.  I want to know how it all turns out.  The book leads up to a crisis and an abrupt, painful cliffhanger of an ending.  Indeed, this first book almost feels like a prologue for the second.  Perhaps it is because it feels like an introduction rather than its own novel, that I can be patient and wait for the sequel without the agony I have felt over many other series.  Now, you may be of another mind, in which case maybe you had best wait for the sequel and then read them both so you get the whole story without the abrupt break in the middle.

Either way, you have been suitably warned!

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on July 19, 2011, in Authors, Book Review, Books, Fantasy, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Robin McKinley and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. As I am male, I am in no way obsessed with horses, and I’ve only ever ridden the unresponsive, passive ones that have memorized their given trail and only want to rush back to the stable for a bag full of oats. I can appreciate them, sure, but yah know- I’m a guy. Give me robots and gunz and zombies any day, and I’m happy.

    I really appreciate that the author took what could have been a cliched and tired idea and made it into her own. Changing the typical physiology of such a widely known mythological creature and shaping it to her own design, and then avoiding the usual “transcendent being” theme, as you mentioned, means this author *thinks* before she reaches for the cliche shelf.

    This is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about with my posts (especially the one on writing aliens). You don’t have to steer away from everything known to avoid being cliche, you only have to take what’s already there and craft it into something truly your own.

  2. I was totally into unicorns. Pegasi were cool too, and then you had the epitomy of a horned Pegasus (unipeg? pegahorn? do they have a name?). My all time favorite illustrator was Sue Dawe. I tried to collect her artwork when it was on glossy school folders. I think she modeled her equine fantasies on Arabian horses.

  3. Make sure you get Brian and Kami to show you pix of Annora as Fledge, the Narnian Pegasus, at Mythcon!

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