Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What we're reading: Shadows, by Robin McKinley

How to describe this book? In a weird way, it's a dystopia, because something happened a couple of generations back that changed the world and put a bunch of scary bureaucrats in charge. But it's also a fantasy, of course, because it's all about magic and its banning from the world of science, and how it leaks and creeps back in again.

I think Robin McKinley is such a great writer, with inventive ideas, compelling characters, and amazing world-building. Anarda and I were discussing, however, that she is also unpredictable--we have loved some of her books, hated others, and been bored to catatonia by at least one. This one, I liked!

Maggie and her mom and little brother lost their dad/husband awhile back (car accident), and it's been tough going. But now her mom has found someone new to love, and although Maggie would like to be glad for her, Val creeps her out on so many levels that she just can't deal. There's his wardrobe, and his weird accent, and his fairly unattractive exterior, but that's the least of it: Val has too many shadows, which seem to loom and dart and rise up higher and create a stranger outline behind him on the wall than anybody's shadow should, and Maggie is apparently the only one who can see them. I found it a little unbelievable how long she managed to ignore them and avoid him, rather than just coming out and asking, but on the other hand, if you put this behavior in the context of people in "science world" being jumpy about anything that smacks of magic, it made sense. And that's where you have to "suspend disbelief" and be willing to go with it because you love McKinley.

As I said, there are regulations in place designed to keep people away from magic and magic away from people. In Newworld, where Maggie lives, there is a whole bureaucracy set up to defend against "cohesion breaks," or cobeys, which are apparently alternate worlds or magical worlds (?) trying to push their way through to this one (or suck people out of it). It's a crime to own magical artifacts, or to practice magic, or to BE magical, and this is a big source of Maggie's worry about Val (who emigrated from Oldworld, where they still practice magic), because now that he's living in their house, he puts them all at risk, even though he's shown no obvious signs (other than the shadows) of risky behavior. Maggie's family has a history of magic-wielders, but supposedly that gene was surgically removed from everyone awhile back--or was it?

Things I loved about this book: all the characters--her mom, her friends, Jill and Taks, her love interest, Casimir, the animals (she has a dog and also works at a shelter), the evolution of the plot. Things that frustrated me: Well, because it was McKinley I was willing to go with it, but the world-building is weird--incomplete and random, with lots of assumptions, confusing lingo, truncated history, tantalizing and infuriating hints that you could know more if only she would tell you! You are set down in the middle of a work in progress that you have to figure out as you go along, and I didn't feel like I had completely understood it even by the end of the book--but I didn't care all that much, because I was enjoying myself and the story.

The book ended satisfactorily, but it was more like the end of a chapter in this alternate history than the end of a world--it definitely left itself open for a sequel, but whether there will be one is anybody's guess, since McKinley mostly doesn't do sequels. I hope so, because I grew really fond of these characters.

So--would I recommend it? Yes. But judging from the ratings on Goodreads, which range from one star to five, you definitely have to be a certain sort of reader to like it.

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