I thought I liked Robin McKinley. I remember reading Deerskin and thinking it was really weird, but I thought I read other stuff by her that I liked. I wonder if it’s a case of seeing her stuff around for a long time and assuming that I had read and liked it. Well, I can now say I’ve read it, can’t say I’ve liked it.
Lily is born mute, but with the gift of healing. She can communicate some things by whistling, but she cannot read or write, nor can anyone in the area. She meets a young man on the road who can mindspeak with her, a man who used to be a mage.
I feel like nothing really happened in this. I mean, yes, things happened, but it didn’t feel like a normal story arc. There didn’t seem to be a climax to the story, and it felt like there should have been more.
A young girl, Ruen, is orphaned, and so her uncle becomes Regent of her country. Ruen grows up alone and unloved, and when rumors of a monster roaming the land appears, her uncle ‘sacrifices’ her to the beast on the day that is meant to be her crowning. But the beast is not all he appears to be.
There seems to be a theme of unsatisfactory endings. I suppose things have happy endings, but more in the fact that things are resolved and then kind of fade away.
A witch has a lovely garden in the middle of the forest, and a woodcutter passes by daily and admires it. One day, his youngest daughter falls sick, and the woodcutter is told of an herb in the garden that will cure her. So he sets out to steal it. (Why he does not simply ask or offer to trade or pay for it I have no idea. That would make sense. Oh, wait, the witch asked the same thing.) As in Rapunzel, the witch demands the life of the woodcutter’s unborn child in payment of the stolen herbs. So now the witch has a daughter, and also a son who is not human.
Honestly, these are all kind of boring.
An old widower falls in love and marries a young girl. But she has secrets that she has not told him. And there is something strange about the hummock of buttercups on one side of the farm. There’s no real big problem in this story. It seems like there’s a problem, but it’s not.
“A Knot in the Grain”
We’re in modern times for a different change of pace. Annabelle has just turned sixteen, and is moving upstate (yes, we’re also in the states!) Her boyfriend, Bill, is a good guy, and she wonders why she doesn’t appreciate him more. I think a lot of people could relate to that, knowing you have a good thing but not wanting to keep it. While exploring the attic, Annabelle finds a mysterious set of stairs, and up them is a mysterious box, that somehow does things in mysterious ways. I feel like the ending could have had more of an explanation, even if it was a paragraph or two.
I feel like a lot of good stories are like a crashing wave. You get calm (maybe) and then rising action, and then at the peak it crashes down. These are more like gentle swells. They can be nice, but they aren’t really exciting.
Immediately after finishing the unsatisfying anthology of A Knot in the Grain, I started reading another Robin McKinley anthology, The Door in the Hedge, in hopes that it will be better. (It was not better.) These four stories are longer than the other ones, so hopefully they’ll have time to go somewhere. These are based on existing fairy tales, so maybe we’ll have some better structure.
“The Stolen Princess”
The prologue is pretty good in setting up the world. The land of faerie is separated from the rest of the land, and the area on the border is a little special. Children and young ladies occasionally go missing, and usually never return, except for that one time when the faeries might have made an oops. (Spoiler alert – the oops never really comes up again.)
The faeries took a princess once on her seventeenth birthday, the twin sister of the current Queen. The sisters were both beautiful and kind, but not identical. And so Alora was devastated at the loss of her sister Ellian, but she had to move on, and marry, and become Queen. (Apparently Kings and Queens got to retire and pass the responsibilities of ruling along instead of dying in their posts. That’s nice, I suppose.) And so Alora married a nice distant cousin and ruled with her husband, and they eventually had a daughter Linadel, who was good and kind and beautiful as well. But then she also gets taken on her seventeenth birthday (oh noes!) and no one is really surprised. We switch to Linadel’s perspective, and things are kind of trippy.
I think my issue with these short stories is that there isn’t enough conflict. There is a slight uneasiness, but anything that might be seen as conflict is sort of glossed over. Things end up working out too neatly.
“The Princess and the Frog”
Well, at least here we have a bad guy. Prince Aliyander is visiting, and he seems to have cast a sort of spell on the Crown Prince. But Princess Rana (we don’t actually learn her name until Part 2) can tell that Aliyander is kind of creepy, and she is not about it. He gives her a necklace that creeps her out, and she accidentally drops it in a deep pool. She’s not sad about it at first, but then she realizes that Aliyander would not be pleased, and he frightens her. So she is not even phased when a big frog talks to her. He fetches the necklace for her, which seemed to have broken its enchantment, and the frog asks to live with the princess for a while. She agrees, finally wondering why a frog could talk. Not the brightest bulb in the bunch, this one.
Halfway through the second part, you can tell exactly where this is going. It’s like a movie trailer that gives you all the important bits, so you don’t really feel the need to see the movie unless you really want to. This does have most of the familiar elements of The Princess and the Frog that we know, but there are a few variations, one of them being that other than the baddie, everyone is fairly nice. The princess does have some instincts toward the end, though.
“The Hunting of the Hind”
There is a Golden Hind (female deer) that makes the hunting dogs go wonky and the men who see her forever changed, so it would make sense to avoid the deer. Wiser heads would have left the silly thing alone.
But apparently the Prince wants it, and tried to get it for both pride and the safety of his people, and has been struck down by illness for his efforts and remains in bed.
The Prince is the son of the King and his beloved first Queen. The King remarried a few years after the death of his love, and a Princess was born many years later. The Princess loves her half brother. And for the love of her brother, she joins the Hunt to find this problematic deer. (I don’t know what she’s planning to accomplish. If the sight of the hind strikes men mad, what does she think will happen? As far as she knows, she would also go mad, and that would help no one.)
And there is a curse, and men are selfish, and again we don’t find out anyone’s name until Part Two of the story. And the way to break the curse both makes sense and is kind of dumb, and not quite fleshed out all the way, at least to me.
“The Twelve Dancing Princesses”
We start off with an “old” soldier (seriously, he’s like late thirties, early forties at most) who hasn’t had the best soldiering career due to a bad commanding officer. So, realism! He hears the tale of the enchantment set upon the twelve princesses of the kingdom, who dance their slippers to tatters every evening, despite being locked in their room. The King has offered the hand of whichever princess pleases the one who can find out where the princesses go each night and bring back a token to prove his tale. And so the soldier set out to do just that. (He does get some help from a wise old women, because of course he does. And she knows what the curse is, because of course she does.)
So he does what he’s told, and the story continues like we already know it will. But the method of actually breaking the curse confuses me a bit. And the soldier’s eventual choice. I mean, his reasoning stands, but he seemed to have more of a connection with another.
And so we’re done! And I probably will never read another Robin McKinley anthology again, because I don’t like them. There’s good world building for the most part, but not much else. I may take a chance on one of her full-length novels, but if I never get around to it I won’t be all that torn up about it.