Review: Pegasus, Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley writes lots of stories where girls (or, ever so occasionally, boys) make friends with people you wouldn’t necessarily think they would make friends with. A Latin geek and a monster; a baker and a vampire; a princess and a pegasus. This friend-making tends to happen in between lots and lots of worldbuilding. Whether I like the book or not tends to depend on how interesting I find the world, and how invested I become in one or both of the characters making friends.

Pegasus is set in the kingdom of Balsinland, where the peace treaty between humans and the pegasi of Rhiandomeer is perpetually sealed by a binding ceremony that connects well-bred humans to well-bred pegasi. In general, the bonded pair do not interact all that much, as they cannot communicate without the assistance of human Speakers or pegasus shamans. But when Princess Sylvi, fourth child and first daughter of King Corone, is bonded to her pegasus, Ebon, she finds that they can talk to each other with no problem. Unprecedented as Ebon and Sylvi’s close relationship is, it excites hostility in many of the humans, and particularly in the magician Fthoom, who makes it his particular project to keep Ebon and Sylvi apart.

The core of this book is the relationship between Ebon and Sylvi, and that’s what shines. They are best friends from age twelve, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still surprise each other at age sixteen. Nor does their unique understanding of the other’s culture keep them from making mistakes. McKinley does a great job, as she always does with her supernatural characters, of depicting the fundamental otherness of the pegasi: these are not the winged horses from your seventh-grade trapper-keeper, but an alien race with its own language and culture and history. As much as Sylvi loves Ebon, she sometimes struggles with the difference between his people and her own.

Another thing McKinley tends to well is families. Sylvi’s parents are both fully fleshed out characters, whose relationships with Sylvi heavily inform the plot. The same is true of Ebon’s family, which Sylvi gets to meet in the second half of the book. The fullness of characters in the periphery of Sylvi and Ebon’s lives suggests that things are happening beyond the edges of what the book covers. Robin McKinley’s gift for worldbuilding is equally evident in her secondary characters.

I’ve seen several reviews that complained of the problematic pacing in this book, which starts out with a bit of an infodump and accelerates rapidly after Sylvi meets Ebon’s family. I have found this to be a perennial problem with Robin McKinley’s work, but in this case it didn’t bother me. I liked the world she was building, and I was willing to take some time to explore it (not so much the case with her last two, Chalice and Dragonhaven). I also didn’t mind the cliffhanger, for two reasons: (1) it wasn’t nearly as appalling a cliffhanger as y’all (ERIN) made it sound (it was no “He was out in the Dark. Frodo was alive but taken by the enemy,” if you know what I mean); and (2) my sister assures me Robin McKinley is busily writing the sequel as we speak.

Random complaint: I hate the use of “pegasi” as the plural. It’s not wrong in the sense of being linguistically problematic – the name “Pegasus” came from Greek mythology and transliterated smoothly into Latin, so if there were going to be a Latin plural it would be pegasi – but I just don’t like it. It’s forced and smug and facile, like a used-car salesman. A Greek plural would be more elegant, or if that came off pretentious, I wouldn’t have minded “pegasus” as a plural (like “deer” or “fish”). When I am the boss of the world (at which point, among other things, Ernest Hemingway should fear for his place in the canon), I will command Robin McKinley to change this in accordance with my desires.

They read it too:

Aelia Reads
The Literary Omnivore
Ela’s Blog
Charlotte’s Library (interview with Robin McKinley)
A Literary Odyssey
Graeme’s Fantasy Review
Dear Author
Babbling about Books, and More
Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Polishing Mud Balls

Did I miss yours? I will add a link if so!

43 thoughts on “Review: Pegasus, Robin McKinley

  1. Ooh- a new Robin McKinley! I hadn’t even heard of this one yet. Although I’m a bit confused after reading Erin’s review- if they’re not winged horses, why is one pictured on the cover?

    • Jeane– she describes them in fairly alien terms; closer to deer than horses, with huge wingspans, hollow bones, and necks which are very, very narrow. Nothing horse-like in these Pegasi.

      Near as I (and those I’ve spoken to) can tell, the photo has a horse-pegasus because a) it’s stock and b) if the title was “Pegasus” and the cover didn’t have what people imagine a pegasus to be… then it would get a greater “wtf” from people than having one with a pegasus.

      Also, I totally imagined horses except when the text absolutely *forced* me to imagine otherwise, because I like horses with wings. I’ve always wanted one.

  2. I’ve been laughing for a couple minutes now.

    On the scale of literary cliffhangers, you’re right, LotR is much, much worse. On the scale of personal agony, however, this is one of the highest ranking because I am dying to know how they get out of this pickle.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Also, when you take over the world, just make sure DWJ and McKinley are made into official canon.

    • DWJ will be in the canon. McKinley, it’ll depend on if she ever delivers me a Sunshine sequel. Unfair, you say? Too damn bad! I liked Con and I want to know more about the Blaises!

      I’m trying to think of literary cliffhangers that really killed me. The Patrick Ness books were difficult — I had to wait so long before the next ones appeared! I hate waiting for books. I wish I could time travel.

      • Literary time travel would be nice.

        And yes, I think you should take over the world and inform her that her place in canon depends upon her sequel so she’d better get writing, darn it.

        I want to know more about the Voodoo wars, too… like why they happened. (And within that context, more about the Blaises.) And what made the bad spots? And are there other towns out there, or is the coffeehouse really the center of civilization?

      • Yes. Pegasus was all well and good, and she has to give us the sequel now, but WHEN will she give us the rest of Sunshine? Sure, it’s complete as it is–technically, but boy did she leave the door open!

  3. Pegasoi? That’s probably not right, either.

    I couldn’t quite imagine the aluha-hands (haven’t got the book with me so apologies for mis-spelling) of the pegasuses, and how they actually worked, but this didn’t impede my enjoyment of the book at all.

    Agree with Erin about DWJ, though.

    • I don’t know, I didn’t take Greek. I am terribly ignorant.

      I looked up “alula” and apparently that’s a real thing (I didn’t even know). I inspected the Wikipedia picture of a bald eagle showing alula in action, and I just tried to picture that exact thing, but with fingers instead of feathers.

  4. Yeah, about the alula-hands: is that a real word? A classical derivation, I mean? It doesn’t ring any bells with me. I like “pegasoi” better than “pegasi” (that bothered me, too) but what REALLY bit me was using “pegasi” as the name of the language they speak. That was just so dumb – either it’s a plural noun or it’s a language. I know, “the English” and “English”, but that’s not a parallel case: languages are usually named after the country, not the species – I bet the humans don’t think of themselves as speaking”humans.”

    I thought the book didn’t really get interesting until she got to Rhiandomeer. And I am saying this as someone who adores RMcK, even throughout Chalice and Dragonhaven. I think you did a great job with this review, putting your finger exactly on what she does so well (the otherness thing, particularly) and less well.

    • It is a real word. True, true story. I think very well played by Robin McKinley using a real thing and making it work so well. Behold above the Wikipedia link about alula.

      Interesting, I was enjoying it before Rhiandomeer, and I wasn’t crazy about some of the visions in the Caves. I loved seeing Ebon’s family though.

  5. Oh, Robin McKinley. Her books have been a total mixed bag for me; some I’ve liked, some I couldn’t stand. Her writing and I don’t get along fantastically at the best of times. And yet, I’ve heard so many good things about this book that I’m really considering giving it a try, in hopes that something will change.

    • Yep, same for me. Well, it’s not that I don’t like her writing, so much as I sometimes don’t like her worlds. I can’t remember, did you read Sunshine? Sunshine, Beauty, and Deerskin are my favorites of hers. Pegasus is also quite good.

      • I’ve read Beauty, and Outlaws of Sherwood, which I liked, and Rose Daughter, which drove me up a wall. I’ve got Sunshine on the TBR pile, though (along with Spindle’s End and The Hero and the Crown).

  6. I love books with extensive world building and this book sounds just odd enough to attract my attention. The pegasus (I am deciding to use your plural choice and not McKinley’s) sound extremely interesting and not at all like what I would expect. I am going to add this one to my list. Also, thanks for your nod to the trapper-keeper. I haven’t thought about those things for at least 10 years!

    • Hahaha, thanks, I appreciate your support for my plural. Robin McKinley’s creatures are never what you would expect — that is one thing that can be said for her.

  7. I always found McKinley’s own comparison of this ending to the ending of The Two Towers to be flippant, considering The Lord of the Rings is one novel. It’s sort of admitting that this is half of a whole novel instead of part of a duet. But I’m glad you liked it!

      • McKinley started Pegasus as one novel, but has said herself that she had to split it for monetary reasons. I think in a lot of ways it’s a two-part book, rather than a two-book series….

        So… after both halves are out, an omnibus edition would be in order.

    • Oh, did she compare this ending to Two Towers? I didn’t know that — makes my comparison even more apt, then! Yay me! :p

      (I agree, though. If it was one novel it should have been one novel.)

      • It’s one novel but it got lengthy. Extremely. (She’s very open, on her blog, about her inability to write short stories or even short novels… most of her novels began life as supposed-to-be-short-stories.) I believe it was her publisher thought who said it had to be published in more than one installment.

  8. I have not read anything by Robin McKinley, but when I saw the synopsis & cover (!) of this one a while back I immediately wanted to read it.

    Yes, isn’t it nice when other family members receive books that you want to read? It’s no coincidence that my mom and I both give each other books we also want to read.

  9. I haven’t read any McKinley but she’s on my list, this book in particular. Although, the pegasi thing is bothering me now without having read the book so I can’t imagine what it will do to me when I do…

  10. I had seen those complaints about the pacing too, and have been holding off from buying a copy because I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. I think what I’ll do is put it on hold at the library and then if I love it I’ll buy a copy.

    • Yeah, I think this one is a library read, at least on the first go-round. I don’t often buy books for myself until I’ve read them a couple of times already, to be sure I want to own them forever.

      • Glad to meet someone else who uses libraries until she’s sure she likes the book! I generally don’t buy them until I’ve read them a few times and absolutely know that there will be times when I want that specific book RIGHT NOW, that I’m going to read and reread it forever.

  11. I can’t wait for you to become boss of the world, if it means that Ernest Hemingway will be taken off the canon. There are parts of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I just want to surgically remove from my brain.

  12. I’m very weird about Robin McKinley. When I love her, I love her. But then, sometimes, I dislike her books so much that I get really, really grumpy about it (see: THE OUTLAWS OF SHERWOOD).

    I mostly love her, though. Especially BEAUTY. And her short fiction. And the good bits of THE HERO AND THE CROWN (but not the bits that put me to sleep).

    Which is my long-winded way of saying I want to read this. I think I’ll probably hold off until the second half is out, though, just to avoid frustration.

    • Same here. I haven’t read The Outlaws of Sherwood, but I’ve been lukewarm on the majority of her books. Alas! I love her so much when I love her! Why can’t it be like that all the time?

  13. I’ve tried a Robin McKinley or two and I’ve seen quite a bit of good buzz, but I just haven’t been able to get into any of them.

    And “Pegasi” makes my ass twitch. lol

  14. I absolutely loved The Hero and The Crown, and The Blue Sword, and do reread them over and over. I had a little trouble getting into Pegasus—it was a bit slow at the beginning. By the end, though, I was really intrigued, and I was very sad at the ending, thinking that she was leaving us with a sad, terrible ending, which would not be unheard of (Deerskin). Imagine my relief when I heard there was a sequel coming out. Whew!

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