Shadows: Young Adult fantasy at its best and worst

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsShadows by Robin McKinley YA fantasy book reviewsShadows by Robin McKinley

Shadows has all the beloved elements of a Robin McKinley novel: the strong female lead, the endearing team of animals and talismans, the never-quite-articulated magic, the laconic romance, and the tendency to give characters one-syllable names. For those familiar pieces alone, Shadows is worth reading. But McKinley’s horizons are smaller than they used to be, and fit more easily into the bounds of young adult fiction.

When we meet Maggie, she’s a sulky, quiet teenager who volunteers as the local animal shelter and spouts unlikely future-slang (loophead, dreeping, dead battery). Her widowed mother has recently remarried an enigmatic man named Val, whose shadow moves eerily and hugely around him. As Maggie tiptoes fearfully around Val, we are introduced to her world in a series of rambling monologues. The future is plagued by magical rents in reality, called cobeys. In Oldworld, which is something like Europe and Asia, cobeys are managed by magic-workers. In Newworld, magic has been entirely eradicated in favor of a scientific-military approach. As the canny reader might suspect, magic hasn’t been eradicated.

Maggie discovers that her stepfather had a dark and magical past in Oldworld, and his wild shadows are introduced as friendly inter-dimensional pets called gruuaa (one of Newworld’s more charming and unique offerings). Then Maggie discovers her mother’s secret magical past. And then her friend Takahiro’s secret magical past. And then the cute pizza guy’s secret magical past. And then her algebra textbook’s magical tendencies. Just when you’re beginning to be not-surprised by each revelation, and wondering what kind of second-rate dystopian dictatorship they’re operating in Newworld, if they can’t even eradicate magic in a suburban neighborhood, the plot lurches into action. Maggie’s town is suddenly plagued by an outbreak of cobeys, and the ensuing military lockdown threatens her ever-growing community of secret magic handlers. After a sudden climax, the book ends with dozens of unexplained, tantalizing questions.

On this level, Shadows is an unusually enjoyable young adult fantasy. Newworld is a compelling and problematic place, the magic is almost tangible, and the creatures (particularly the frenetic border collie, Mongo) are easy to love. The cast might be slightly overlarge, creating the sense that you were rushed through a series of introductions at a party, but even these brief glimpses instill a surprising degree of loyalty.

But Shadows also has that shallow, diet soda flavor that’s so common in young adult fantasy. It’s a kind of lessening of scope and ambition, which takes an excellent story and renders it a teen story. Perhaps it’s a little absurd to argue that a teen book feels like it was written for teens. Chuck Wendig at TerribleMinds argues that young adult fiction doesn’t deserve the dismissive, when-I-was-your-age-I-read-Tolkien-and-liked-it attitude that it often receives, which is perfectly true. He also claims that, after all, “We write about teens to talk to teens.” But I suspect that talking to teens is much more like talking to people than most authors believe, and the dumbing-down is rarely necessary.

This diminishing of stories for young people is particularly hard to swallow in a Robin McKinley book. Her early works — The Blue Sword (1982), The Hero and the Crown (1985), Deerskin (1993), Spindle’s End (2000) — are some of the best and most sincere young adult fantasies in the genre. They’re each coming-of-age stories in the classic sense, but they don’t diminish the sense of scope and majesty that great fantasy offers. Over the last decade, McKinley’s ambitions have shrunk. Chalice, Dragonhaven, and Pegasus were all the kind of pleasant but weightless story which leaves no lingering footprint in the mind.

Shadows has more heft than Pegasus or Dragonhaven, but it suffers from a similar set of symptoms. Stylistically, Shadows is a much less disciplined piece of writing than McKinley’s early works. Dialogue and description were sparingly, carefully distributed in The Blue Sword. There were no “Hi Mom how was your day?” kinds of conversations, or wandering little descriptions of high school teachers. The plot, too, was more disciplined, without any lingering questions or dead ends. By comparison, Shadows feels ragged and rushed, written in the stream-of-consciousness style of McKinley’s own blog.

The lighter writing style has crept into Robin McKinley’s characters, too. Maggie’s strength as a heroine seems wobblier and less likely, narrated from inside her own skull. In The Hero and the Crown we’re watching the heroine from a slight distance. Those few literary feet seem to be crucial, fertile ground for myth-making: We can see Aerin’s heroism, and the way legends grow around her. But in Shadows we’re far too close to Maggie, and something of the heroic luster leaves her. She’s uncertain, fearful, distracted by the cute pizza guy. She’s disappointingly average.

There are pieces of Shadows, though, that exceed the arbitrary limitations of young adult fiction. These moments of maturity are mostly in the small things — Maggie’s frustrated attempts to train her border collie, her musings about the gruua, and her obsessive love of origami, are the kinds of details that pull Shadows away from the brink of mediocrity. I would even call it a promising beginning, except for my jaded suspicion that a sequel will never be forthcoming (McKinley has been historically offended by the suggestion of sequels). But, when I was a teenager, I didn’t want to read about other average, angsty teen girls who fail math and crush on boys; I wanted Harimad-sol, facing down the northern hordes on her golden horse.

Shadows — (2013) Publisher: A compelling and inventive novel set in a world where science and magic are at odds, by Robin McKinley, the Newbery-winning author of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, as well as the classic titles Beauty, Chalice, Spindle’s End, Pegasus and Sunshine. Maggie knows something’s off about Val, her mom’s new husband. Val is from Oldworld, where they still use magic, and he won’t have any tech in his office-shed behind the house. But—more importantly—what are the huge, horrible, jagged, jumpy shadows following him around? Magic is illegal in Newworld, which is all about science. The magic-carrying gene was disabled two generations ago, back when Maggie’s great-grandmother was a notable magician. But that was a long time ago. Then Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. He’s from Oldworld too—and he’s heard of Maggie’s stepfather, and has a guess about Val’s shadows. Maggie doesn’t want to know… until earth-shattering events force her to depend on Val and his shadows. And perhaps on her own heritage. In this dangerously unstable world, neither science nor magic has the necessary answers, but a truce between them is impossible. And although the two are supposed to be incompatible, Maggie’s discovering the world will need both to survive.

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ALIX E. HARROW, who retired from our blog in 2014, is a part-time historian with a full-time desk job, a lot of opinions, and excessive library fines. Her short fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Apex, and other venues. She won a Hugo Award for her fiction in 2019. Alix and her husband live in Kentucky under the cheerful tyranny of their kids and pets. Find her at @AlixEHarrow on Twitter. Some of her favorite authors include Neil Gaiman, Ursula LeGuin, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Susanna Clarke.

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