29 July 2011

Review of Robin McKinley's Chalice: Part 1.2

More on the book Chalice and on the author Robin McKinley

Things that could make a person not want to read this book:

1. The story sort of floats from event to event—or, more accurately, from thought to thought—being roughly linear (in that it doesn't run backwards), but it frequently circles back to tell you what happened 'before' or 'in the interim', while being also  a bit hazy on time and details of its passage.

2. McKinley feels no need to explain herself. She expects you to learn by immersion. I respect the ever-loving daylights out of that, but not everyone is me, and I won’t deny that you have to—y’know—think. Fill in the gaps between what the author gives you.

3. Her wording and somewhat meandering narrative style can be confusing if you’re not willing to pay attention. I know that sounds accusative, but everyone wants a “zippy page-turner” which is a decided loss for us and for things that are rich and slow (like honey!!!) You really do want to have a marked affinity for her particular thought processes and prose, though. I can’t recommend her to everyone.

Now that I’ve given some criticism, here’s a continuation of the good stuff, to marry up with the previous post:

Secondly (since there was already a firstly in the other post): Beauty and Handsomeness are NOT the relevant characteristics of McKinley’s protagonists. In plenty of cases they are not characteristics at all. In fact, physical features aren’t terribly important unless they are ones that isolate (such as Aerin’s paler skin and red hair denoting her Northern origin, or Harry’s height, making her awkward and lending nothing in the way of beauty—examples from the Hero and the Crown and the Blue Sword respectively. Even Rosie’s “gifted” features in Spindle’s End are implied to be more bizarre than beautiful). I mention this because McKinley’s books fall more-or-less into the YA Lit category, and YA Lit is flooded with novels that put an inordinate emphasis on physical features and physical attraction.

Thirdly: In McKinley’s books: Bombast is not equated to strength. Sarcasm is not equated to strength. Masculinization is not equated strength. And feminism is not derisive towards feminine characteristics. Women characters are liable to be quiet and polite, or wild and rude; homebodies, or restless beings; beautiful or plain. The character Aerin cooks up fire-protectant recipes…and fights dragons (The Hero and the Crown). Mirasol’s a beekeeper and second in command over her province (Chalice). Harry (The Blue Sword)…well Harry was a straight-up fighter (and yes, she’s my favorite), but a somewhat baffled and reluctant one at first.

McKinley makes a sufficiently broad assertion that she writes about “girls who do things.” She doesn’t say “girls who do traditionally masculine things.” It’s girls who do all manner of things—often as a result of it being a duty, as opposed to some aimless rebellious princess syndrome (although that happens sometimes too). It’s the difference between an actual story, with actual characters (McKinley’s), and a reactionary story with reactionary characters, (so many others these days).

Now, due to the fact that I am going on and on about Robin McKinley, one may get the impression that she is my favorite author. She is not, although she is high on the list. She is talented and worthy of glowing reviews in her own right, however it is somewhat by comparison that I praise her so heartily now. She is a different caliber of writer than most of her Young Adult Literature peers and I think readers have lowered their expectations to the point that they’ll accept really pathetic prose so long as the story ‘reads fast’ or has reasonable amounts of sexual tension between the two leads (because that does seem to be the trend, doesn’t it?) I’m not saying that there aren’t other exceptions, but Robin McKinley is the one with which I’m most familiar.

She also manages to do another trend-ignoring thing: She writes in third person most of the time. If you are a YA reader of any kind and you are sick to the back teeth of bland, indistinguishable first-person narratives, then you owe it to yourself to sit down and read something in elegant third-person.

People seem to choose first person because it give them the opportunity to:
A: Use slang and be highly informal and idiomatic
B: Give a sense of intimacy and immediacy—especially if it’s in first-person present tense, a method which Suzanne Collins has popularized via Hunger Games.
C: Tell you exactly what the protagonist is thinking at all times instead of leaving you to guess by context and atmosphere.

Now understand, I do not disapprove of first-person narrative…but I think it takes an absolute master to accomplish it with any degree of finesse. Most authors seem to use the first person as a venue to see all things occurring. But, in reality, individual voices and points of view are so distinct, that a real character isn’t actually going to sit there and take note of all the details you want them to take note of! They’re going to miss some crucial stuff! They’re not always going to be insightful about the things you want them to be insightful about. Their moods will change, causing their narrative to change tone while still clearly belonging to them. That is HARD TO DO. I just don’t think many people do it well.

Right now, that’s all I have to say about that. Traditionally formatted review to follow.

1 comment:

  1. I like your bi-partisan commentary. I know how much you admire Ms. McKinley, so I appreciate that you gave some caveats that she is not for everyone.
    I really liked the 'honey' comment, and how you have challenged readers to raise their levels and try something a bit more "difficult". although, if you can ready JRR Tolkien's LOTR then why not challenge one's reading ability with less popularized authors and series?
    That is not to say that I don't love LOTR...it just is really popular.