Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: SHADOWS by Robin McKinley

So I didn’t actually drop everything to read Robin McKinley’s SHADOWS the moment it arrived. But I did read it within the week. That’s rather rare for me, and rarer when I have to overcome serious guilt in order to read a book (But the PURE MAGIC revision! I should be doing the PURE MAGIC revision!).

I mean, usually I just have to overcome normal authorial guilt in order to read a new book (Uh, shouldn’t I be writing something? Maybe it’s about time to start working on a new project?) And that kind of guilt is a constant, so I’m used to beating it down with a stick so I can have a life.

But hey, how often does McKinley bring out a new title, right? So there you go. Plus Wednesday I had a broken evening, bad for working – I like long blocks of more or less uninterrupted time for actual work – but fine for reading. Plus, editorial comments for BLACK DOG hadn’t arrived yet, luckily (I got those yesterday.)

So, yeah, SHADOWS. Did you notice this one is dedicated to Diana Wynne Jones? I point this out because out of all of McKinley’s books, this is the one that to me reads the most like a DWJ story. If I didn’t know McKinley wrote it . . . if I didn’t pick up a handful of stylistic details that are common to McKinley’s work . . . I could totally believe this book had actually been written by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s not just that the prose reads like DWJ to me, though it does, but also the story itself also reads like a DWJ story. The close focus on family – on a broken family, now opening up to include a new stepfather. The creepy shadows hanging out around the stepfather. Oldworld and Newworld (and Farworld and so forth), with magic so much more common in Oldworld and so violently repressed in Newworld . . . yep, it all feels very DWJ.

I really enjoyed the family-and-friends dynamic in SHADOWS. I particularly loved the relationship between Maggie and her mom. Maggie tries so hard not to show how much her new stepfather creeps her out because she doesn’t want to hurt her mother; and her mother, though she badly wants her daughter to be friends with her new husband, tries so hard not to hurt Maggie by shoving the new relationship down her throat.

I loved the relationship between Maggie and Takahiro, too, and I loved how Takahiro was not the gorgeous-sensitive-uber-perfect boyfriend at all. And yet he is still a guy you can totally care about. (Casimir worried me at first, but I liked how that worked out in the end.) I really enjoyed the relationship between Maggie and her best friend, Jill – actually, it drove me briefly nuts that Maggie wasn’t telling Jill what was going on, but then she did, so that was all right after all.

Naturally I loved the stepfather, Val. I would have liked to hear more about his actual backstory. If McKinley wrote a sequel . . . not that that is likely . . . I would hope to find out a lot more about Val. Only Maggie’s brother, Ran, seemed one-dimensional and actually, I must admit, kind of superfluous to the story, which would not have been very much affected by his total absence. Again, if there were to be a sequel, I would expect Ran to take on more depth as a character. This book could totally use a sequel, btw, not that it doesn’t stand on its own because it does, but the world is in a kind of unstable place at the time the story closes.

And, yes, okay, naturally I loved the dogs! Thank heaven Robin McKinley really understands dogs – nobody with any sense is going to read this and decide they want a border collie just like Mongo, because McKinley really captures typical border collie nuttiness. I wondered at first why in the world she put a border collie in particular in this book, but then, you know, sheep, so that explained that.

I spent the whole book cheering Maggie’s perfectly correct comments about training (“If your dog doesn’t do what you want, it’s always your fault”) and appreciating my totally-non-crazy Cavaliers. I enjoyed the other dogs, too, and how McKinley captured the graciousness and dignity of the wolfhound and the good-humored arrogance of the staffie perfectly in so few words. And for the cat people out there, there’s a pretty neat cat, too (I’m a fan of both, naturally, and since my cat is Maine-Coon-ish, I especially appreciated the Maine Coon in this story). Though the critter that readers are going to actually dream about having as a companion is Hix, I expect. (Probably not the sheep.) (The sheep made me laugh.)

So – yes, this is definitely a title you should pick up if you’re a McKinley fan. Or a DWJ fan. Or a reader who appreciates the presence of accurately depicted dogs in a story. This is a fast, light read that I think almost anyone would enjoy, but it’s definitely a must for any teenage girls you know who are dog crazy — along, btw, with DWJ’s DOGSBODY.

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7 Comments Recent Reading: SHADOWS by Robin McKinley

  1. Maureen E

    Yup, totally agreed! Really enjoyed this one a lot–I love Chalice, but this might be my second-favorite in what I tend to think of as “modern McKinley.” I’m not a dog person, but I suspected it all checked out, because she is. And has actually trained her own dogs, etc. I loved the sheep. I also loved Hix. I’m not such a fan of the front cover–I’d love a cover with an origami animal and its shadow, except that the shadow is real. The cover as stands doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story and if I weren’t a McKinley fan, it wouldn’t tempt me to pick up the book.

    I called Val very early, but I could also see why Maggie didn’t, so this didn’t strike me as terrible stupidity. I liked the way their relationship developed a lot. And I loved Takahiro and the way that unfolded–I also had a horrible, “OH NO,” moment when Casimir appeared on the scene. But trust McKinley to turn that on its head.

    I did find that the book had a somewhat elusive feel to it–I find it hard to say what it’s about, beyond the bare mechanics of plot. Maybe this is due partly to the slightly-open-could-totally-have-a-sequel feel of the ending. I’m not sure; it’s not a criticism, certainly didn’t change my enjoyment of the book at all. But it’s a slightly odd feeling to attach to a story, and I’m not sure why I’m noticing it.

    I didn’t notice the DWJ feel while reading, but I can totally see it.

    Ran–I think maybe the main purpose of his character was to be a slight foil to Maggie? I tried thinking about the story without him, and it seemed to me that it would make Maggie’s distrust of Val both more absolute and at the same time more unreliable. If we only have her view of him, it changes something. With Ran as well, it’s slightly different.

  2. Cheryl L

    Can’t wait for my bookseller to receive my copy of SHADOWS (books take longer to arrive in Australia – grrrr!).

  3. Rachel

    Hi, Maureen — I absolutely agree about the cover. A forest, why? Very boring and also completely unsuited to the story. Especially since the design includes origami animals as chapter headings — why in the world not have an origami animal on the cover? And yes, with its shadow curling up and being real, just as you suggest. That would have been perfect.

    I called Val instantly, just as you did, but like you it didn’t bother me that Maggie thought he was super-creepy. If I actually saw the shadows the way she did, I bet I would think he was creepy, too. I get what you mean about Ran; his uncomplicated acceptance of Val does probably lead to the reader feeling that Val is probably all right, really, and that Maggie’s reaction to him is not really justified. On the other hand, to me, his complete obliviousness about everything made me discount his reaction to Val, too.

    If I had to choose between CHALICE and SHADOWS, I think I would also choose CHALICE, which I really, really loved.

  4. Kristina

    I’m a bit late chiming in here since I thought I should wait until I finished the book, but I did want to add my agreement to all that’s been said so far. I have so much on my TBR list that I rarely preorder a book, but I made an exception for SHADOWS. McKinley? Dogs? I’ve been waiting for this one ever since she first revealed it on her blog. I was expecting to gulp it down but I ended up taking it a chapter a day, I think because I enjoyed spending time with Maggie. I have to say that I’m one of the people who wasn’t crazy about the voice in DRAGONHAVEN, but the first-person conversational style really worked for me in this one. I also loved the way inanimate objects were anthropomorphized; I used to think of everyday things that way but sad to say I found I’ve grown out of it. So, yes, add me to the list of folks who would like a Hix of their own – but I think what I’d really love is a pet book! :)

  5. Rachel

    Kristina, I know, right? Who would expect an algebra textbook to be . . . a pet? Have you read the one by Sarah Addison Allen where books follow the protagonist around, sort of giving her advice?

  6. Kristina

    Ooh, no I haven’t! I’ll have to look for that. If you read McKinley’s blog, you’ll realize that she names everything, from her car to her laptop. And of course objects that are more than they appear are an important part of Beauty and the Beast, which we know is an important story to her. All of which is to say that while I was delighted by the algebra book it didn’t take me entirely by surprise.

    Over the past day or so I’ve been trying to figure out why SHADOWS worked for me better than DRAGONHAVEN did, and I think it comes down to the scope of story. SHADOWS takes place over mere months; I can easily picture Maggie telling us her tale a few days after the last chapter ends. DRAGONHAVEN, on the other hand, spans years. We realize toward the end that the narrator is married and has a child of his own – yet he still sounds like a young teen. So while the character grows and matures, his voice does not. SHADOWS, for me, seemed much more immediate, and thus more authentic. If that makes any sense. ;)

  7. Rachel

    Hi, Kristina — It’s Chloe in THE SUGAR QUEEN who has the special relationship with books.

    And dammit, don’t go spoiling the character’s voice from DRAGONHAVEN. That’s too good a point!

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