I’m not sure if I bought this fantasy short story collection by Robin McKinley when I first saw it in the mid-1990s because McKinley was one of my favorite fantasy authors or because I was entranced by the cover art on the paperback, with the colorful contrast between the girl in a brilliant sapphire dress and the bright gold background of buttercups. Actually, at that time I was pretty much automatically buying everything McKinley wrote. Regardless, I very much enjoyed the collection of five fantasy short stories, and have reread them several times since. These tales are set in different lands and, for the most part, different worlds, but they are bound together by the fantasy element and their young women protagonists. As a whole, I rate this collection 4 stars, but I’ve given each story its own rating below.
“Healer” is set in same fantasy world as Damar, the desert land explored more deeply in The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Lily, a gifted healer apprentice, has been mute since birth, and feels some bitterness toward her inability to communicate. When she is twenty, she meets Sahath, a jaded wizard who has lost almost all of his powers, but retains the ability to mindspeak. Lily is entranced with him, the first person she has ever been able to truly communicate with, although her teacher and friend Jolin fears him:
What, she asked herself in fear, might this man do to her, in her innocence, her pleasure in the opening of a door so long closed to her, and open now only to this stranger? Mages were not to be trusted on a human scale of right and wrong, reason and unreason. Mages were sworn to other things. Jolin understood that they were sworn to ― goodness, to rightness; but often that goodness was of a high, far sort that looked very much like misery to the smaller folk who had to live near it.
When Sahath offers to take Lily to his old master, the great mage, to see if he can give Lily her voice, all three ― Jolin, Lily and Sahath ― must face their fears.
The quiet pace of this story fits its subject matter; not just Lily’s physical silence, but also Sahath’s slowly learning to love and hope again. For readers who love the character of Luthe and the world of Damar, it’s also a pleasure to revisit them again, however briefly. 3.5 stars.
In “The Stagman,” the princess Ruen has been raised in the shadow of her uncle, who became Regent over their kingdom when Ruen’s parents died. Her uncle is a man who has grasped power and does not wish to relinquish it to Ruen. So he isolates her, with no friends or family or even servants that she can rely on, and sees to it that she is given only instructions and lessons that are too difficult to comprehend. Ruen grows up passive, dazed and inadequate.
On Ruen’s name day when she is supposed to be named queen, her uncle announces that magical portents warn against it. Instead Ruen is left chained to stones outside the city, to die as a human sacrifice to the half-man, half-beast monster that lately has been sighted in the kingdom. What happens thereafter that is not at all what either Ruen or her uncle had expected.
“The Stagman,” like “Healer,” is set in the world of Damar: Luthe once again makes a brief but critical appearance in the tale. The titular stagman is a mysterious shapeshifter that Ruen meets at a couple of key points in her life. Ruen’s name is indicative of her bittersweet life; she’s a solemn character who floats along letting other make decisions for her, and her passivity and emotional isolation makes her difficult to empathize with. Ruen remains passive until the very end, when she suddenly makes an understandable but controversial choice. 2 stars.
“Touk’s House” is a variant on the Rapunzel fairy tale: a woodcutter’s youngest daughter falls ill, and the local doctor suggests that an herb from a nearby witch’s garden might heal her. In desperation, the woodcutter steals the herb, is caught by the witch, and given the herb (a different one than the one he was trying to steal) that will heal his daughter. But in return he is forced to give the witch his wife’s unborn child, their fifth daughter. At this point the tale veers off in a somewhat different direction: the witch Maugie raises baby Erana with love and teaches her the healing arts, and Maugie’s son Touk, half-troll with green skin and fangs, falls in love with Erana as she grows older. But Erana has to follow her own path first to decide what she wants in life.
This is another quiet tale, simply told, but with some unexpected insights into the various forms that love may take, and showing that winning a kingdom and the hand of a handsome prince might not be the optimal place to find personal happiness and peace. 3.5 stars.
Perhaps appropriately because of my cover love for this book, my favorite story in this collection is “Buttercups.” Pos, an older widowed farmer, sees a chestnut-haired young woman at the market each week and falls in love. Awkwardly, he begins to court her, hardly believing that she can be interested in a man twenty years older than she. But Coral treats him with great affection, and agrees to be his wife when he eventually asks her. Transcendently blissful at first, Pos soon discovers two holes in the weave of his happiness: First, he overhears a servant’s spiteful gossip that Coral only married him to get away from her family’s poverty. The second is a troublesome hillock on his farm that stubbornly refuses to be cultivated and will grow only buttercups. When Pos and Coral discover that their horses’ shoes temporarily turn to gold when they ride their horses on Buttercup Hill, Pos begins to think that his second dilemma might be the answer to his first. He decides to try taking the horseshoes off the horse while they are gold, hoping that they’ll then remain gold, and thinking that Coral might be more content to stay if he is a richer man. But the wild magic of Buttercup Hill reacts in a way Pos never expected, and suddenly he has other major troubles to deal with.
In “Buttercups,” magic touches ordinary lives in a fascinating way. The interplay between the magical events and the characters’ lives, and the understanding Pos gains not only about Coral, but about his own heart and the need for honest communication, make this a wonderful moral tale as well as an unusual fantasy. 5 stars.
The final story, “A Knot in the Grain,” is set in our modern world, with just a touch of magic. High school junior Annabelle has moved with her family to a new town, and Annabelle is feeling rather lost and adrift as the new kid in town, missing her old friends, and wanting to make new friends but feeling too shy and awkward to do so. In her attic bedroom one day, she touches a knot in a wooden beam in the low ceiling, which opens a crack to reveal a narrow set of stairs leading to a tiny hidden room. And in the hidden are shelves, and books, and a mysterious wooden box. The box seems to exude some kind of power, and it somehow seems very anxious to help Annabelle with any problems and concerns in her life.
“A Knot in the Grain” is the most overtly young adult story in this collection, with its teenage main character and her high school concerns, but I still found myself pulled into Annabelle’s world and interested in the outcome. It’s a fairly straightforward magical realism type of tale, but it takes an unexpected and thought-provoking turn in the end. 4 stars.
These fantasies turn more on the internal lives of their characters than exciting adventures, but their quieter and thoughtful approach has its own appeal. McKinley’s recent works are sometimes frustrating in their lack of clarity and resolution, particularly with her penchant for including nightmarish and incomprehensible magical clashes. These stories from earlier in her career have a refreshing simplicity in comparison, evocative of classic folk and fairy tales.