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:
The Literary Omnivore
Charlotte’s Library (interview with Robin McKinley)
A Literary Odyssey
Graeme’s Fantasy Review
Babbling about Books, and More
Satisfaction for Insatiable Readers
Polishing Mud Balls
Did I miss yours? I will add a link if so!