Pegasus by Robin McKinley
My track record with Robin McKinley prior to Pegasus was one out of two; I loved Sunshine but loathed Beauty. In fact, when I requested this ARC, I mentioned this as a selling point to prove that I was objective. (It clearly worked!) Since I rarely see pegasi in fantasy fiction, Pegasus intrigued me; and because I have never seen fully sentient pegasi in fantasy before, I had to pick it up.
Pegasus takes place in a world were an alliance between human civilization and pegasi civilization has lasted for years; the two species work together well because humans can take care of enemies pegasi can’t. But the two species have difficulty with the language barrier; magicians known as Speakers, who study the pegasi language all their lives, are needed to translate pegasi, and even that isn’t perfect. As a symbol of the Alliance, the human royals and pegasus royals are ceremonially bound together. When human Princess Sylvi is bonded with pegasus Prince Ebon, the two make a startling discovery; they can understand each other perfectly. But their bond poses a threat to tradition concerning human pegasus relations and the magicians whose power derives from their translation skills–and all this as more and more supposedly mythical enemies come towards Balsinland…
McKinley presents a fascinating culture in the pegasi. Pegasi aren’t simply horses with wings; there’s a moment where Sylvi sees a pegasus next to a horse and compares them. They’re impossibly narrow and thin, like birds, and, most startlingly, they’ve got hands–anywhere from four to six down-covered fingers on their wing joints. Because of the weakness of these alula-hands, they envy humans’ strong hands and, especially, wrists, just as humans envy them their flying. Because McKinley’s pegasi have a pretty dim view of property rights and wealth, they need something like this to make them more than just perfect mystical beings. There’s elements to the pegasi culture and language that don’t come easily across Ebon and Sylvi’s telepathic connection, such as the Caves, a sacred pegasi space filled with delicate carvings and that pull pegasi into a sort of dreamtime concerning their culture. I love language barriers in speculative fiction, so I ate this up. Not only are pegasi fairly rare in fantasy, but sentient pegasi with civilizations aren’t particularly well-represented, so I found McKinley’s pegasi quite refreshing. The humans are your standard fantasy humans, complete with imperialistic overtones (pegasi magicians are deemed shamen instead of magicians) and ambiguously motivated magicians (which McKinley plays with nicely).
Sylvi is an endearing character, although her full name, Sylviianel, makes me giggle. (Pronounced, it sounds like “Sylvie Venial”. Yes, I am five and study equally mature Renaissance poetry.) She’s not quite sure what she wants to do with her life, despite her talents at math and engineering, until she bonds with Ebon–she quickly grows obsessed with the pegasi, especially once the pair start sneaking off for midnight flights. She’s very small, as the novel harps on, which connects her to the delicate pegasi, and it’s almost with trepidation that she, at age sixteen, receives compliments on the fact that she’s finally growing. I do think she’s written as a little young when she’s twelve, but once she’s fifteen and sixteen, it clears up. Ebon is fun; as Sylvi notes, he’s a fun and stubborn extrovert who loves Sylvi like a sister. But I do have to say that my favorite character was Sylvi’s mother, a decorated and supposedly retired soldier who continues to serve. She’s witty, loving, and her relationship with her husband is very sweet and subtly introduced–when she comes back from hunting mystical beasts only to go right back out again, her husband sends a note begging the stables to take her saddle away from her. I quite enjoyed Sunshine and the other women of Sunshine, and McKinley’s women are just great here, from Sylvi to her mother to Sylvi’s ladies (who are all secretly guards).
However, Pegasus’ structure is visibly strained. For the first half of the novel, before Sylvi travels to the kingdom of the pegasi, things bounce back and forth from the present action to past events in a non-linear fashion so fast I nearly got whiplash. While it opens with a very engaging line, it immediately dives into backstory and sets up the novel. (That is never a good idea.) Because Pegasus is aimed at the younger end of the young adult spectrum, I can forgive that a little, but not as much as McKinley engages in it here. As I’ve said before, worldbuilding should come through naturally in the course of a novel; you should never sit a reader down and give them a history lesson. If necessary, you can frame it as an in-story story or even a history lesson to a character, but not directly to the reader. Because Sylvi is pretty endearing and the pegasi are so interesting, I powered through, but I noticed I was only truly engrossed once I was knee-deep in the second half. The ending is also a bit abrupt; while all the elements of a satisfying ending are there, there’s just enough doubt to make you wonder what’s going to happen–it takes the second half of the “in late, out early” rule a bit too seriously. Perhaps if the pace was a bit snappier and the novel more linear, I’d have enjoyed it more–but I did enjoy it.
Bottom line: In Pegasus, Robin McKinley presents a fascinating civilization of sentient pegasi, as well as an endearing heroine, Sylvi. The structure, though, can be strained (the first half bounces merrily from past to present so fast you’ll get whiplash) and the ending is a bit abrupt. Worth a rental.
I received this advance review copy for free for promotional purposes.
Pegasus will be released on November 2–tomorrow!