halfway to disappointment

I adore Robin McKinley’s writing; she is on that short list of authors whose books I will pick up without knowing anything about them except they’re written by Robin McKinley.

Chalice . . . is my least favorite Robin McKinley book.

I won’t say I didn’t like it, but I don’t know how much of me liking it was due to the author, rather than the book. Too much of it kept backtracking to tell me about things before the narrative began; for a while there it felt like two pages of present story, twenty pages of backstory. Too much of it was told in summary, the narration describing what happened when Mirasol talked with Clearseer or whoever, rather than actually showing me that interaction. Too much repetition — Mirasol lamenting her lack of apprenticeship, for example — for too little in the way of new development in character and plot.

I think there ultimately wasn’t enough here to fill out its length (and it’s a short book for all of that). It might have compelled me ten times more had it been a third as long.

There still would have been the inherent conservatism of the setting — the wholehearted embrace of the connection between family lineage and talent/magic/right — but I can be okay with that, inasmuch as I don’t require fantasy only to explore concepts I want to live with in real life. But it needed more exploration of that conservatism, or else less time spent dwelling on it. More story, or else less book.

It reminds me, though, that I still haven’t gotten around to reading Dragonhaven, which I remember people quibbling with back when it came out. Maybe I’ll make time for that one soonish.

0 Responses to “halfway to disappointment”

  1. sartorias

    I felt that Chalice and Dragonhaven went unedited. Both had some lovely scenes–and would have made smashing novelettes, but trudging through pages and pages of infodump in order to find actual scenes was so unrewarding.

    I think I liked Dragonhaven less because of the falsity of the voice, supposedly a fourteen year old boy. Just as an example, he lets us know that he’s anti organized religion, then calls an older woman a saint. In all my years, I have never heard any fourteen year old boy say that about a married woman–not even the Mormon kids I used to teach.

    • Marie Brennan

      I felt that Chalice and Dragonhaven went unedited.

      . . . yeah, I feel bad saying it (see: my adoration of McKinley in general), but there was a point in reading Chalice when I wondered what her editor had thought of it — whether s/he really felt the tension and forward movement of the story were up to snuff. And it’s one thing when the author is newish (and maybe not capable of doing better), or when I can chalk that aspect up to taste (I would have done it differently, but this is a valid choice), but in this case I know McKinley can both write tighter and more exciting stories, and write more leisurely stories in a manner that will keep me hooked. I mean, Sunshine has its share of rambling and then some, and it’s on the list of books I can’t let myself pick up unless I know I have the spare time to re-read the whole thing, since that’s what I’ll end up doing regardless.

      Dragonhaven might successfully get me on concept alone, which would counterbalance its other flaws. Am I correct in remembering that it was explicitly marketed as YA? And is Chalice the same? I’m wondering if that’s part of what’s going on here.

      • sartorias

        Not sure.

        Sunshine I thought was brilliant, but these two just seem to be rushed first drafts, totally unedited.

        I love McKinley, too, but I doubt I will ever revisit these.

        • Marie Brennan

          Half-drafts, I would say — partway between an outline and a draft, given all the summary.

          Sigh. I really didn’t want to be disappointed, if that makes sense.

          • sartorias


            Makes sense because I felt the same.

          • fjm

            It wasn’t just inherently conservative, it was absolutely so. it was simply not possible to envisage any kind of resistance to the system, because, we were warned, even such an envisagement, might destroy The Land. I found the novel terribly claustrophobic.

            Jo Walton’s new book Lifelode has a similar theme but far more deftly handled.

          • sartorias

            Yes,k about Lifelode.

          • Marie Brennan

            Yes, I saw your post about the Walton book — and your comments on Chalice were very much in my head as I read. I didn’t find that aspect claustrophobic, per se; hell, I’d rather see that kind of feudal concept treated as literally true (along with its consequences) than watered down into the quasi-feudal mush so much of fantasy bases itself on. But the exploration was ultimately insufficient. I could have been okay with this amount had it been a novelette, but for a novel, I needed more.

        • diatryma

          I read Dragonhaven after reading her blog for a while, which helped break the book for me. Unfortunately, Dragonhaven had the sort of flaws that perfectly demonstrate what they are, so once you’ve seen them, you see them everywhere, and many of the things that I thought were wrong with Dragonhaven are also wrong with Sunshine. Less so, and there’s a lot more awesome in there to balance them out, but they’re there.

          Over break, I read a couple Peter Dickinson stories, and they have the same flaws in timeline/rambling.

          • sartorias

            Wow, that’s interesting. I wonder if that’s why I never got into Dickinson? (It’s been a while since I tried last.)

          • diatryma

            It was really only one short story, a man telling a story about his boyhood and a particular incident of ghost/nonghost. I know I’ve read at least one of his novels, but it didn’t stick with me very much. I think their writing is very similar, anyway.

          • Marie Brennan

            That makes me think I should stay away from Dragonhaven, lest it interfere with my Sunshine-love.

          • diatryma

            Sunshine has sufficient awesome that I don’t so much mind. Now, rather than unadulterated read this book you’ll love it I recommend it with yes, all those things are wrong with it, but it’s still really really good.

            Keep in mind, I really, really, really did not like Dragonhaven. Only some of that can be laid at the feet of her blog.

          • Marie Brennan

            Was the blog thing ‘s problem, where the book-voice was too obviously also the rambling voice of her blog? Or something else?

          • diatryma

            Same problem. Same problem exactly. She used the same words to describe her dogs and the dragon.

          • diatryma

            And I’m sorry that the comments kind of turned into Why We Disliked Dragonhaven. Even knowing that it’s a context thing– that I read Chalice with a knowledge of what bad looked like and my brainguards up– it is still less than perfectly useful.

          • Marie Brennan

            No, “Why We Disliked Dragonhaven” is useful to me, too.

    • mindstalk

      As someone who was an anti-religion 14 year old boy, I can imagine calling a woman a saint were she helpful/patient enough in dire enough circumstances. And I wouldn’t have thought being married had anything to do with hit.

      I liked Chalice a lot. Dragonhaven not so much. Though I have a note that it ends with a novel kind of family structure. Mild spoiler for our host, though.

  2. diatryma

    Chalice was flawed, but still readable. I agree that it seemed unedited. How many times must we learn that the random jar of honey she’s grabbed is the Very Special Jar? And there’s the scene with the fireplace, when he heals her, that is basically,

    “Hello there! How are you?”
    I paused and had a two page flashback.
    “I’m fine. You?”

    The ending cheated, too. McKinley relies on a sort of liminal uncomprehensible deus ex machina thing a lot– I usually have to read the ending two or three times before I figure out what happened– like Lovecraft, where she’s going for something human minds cannot comprehend, so her characters don’t comprehend it and neither does the reader. It’s Lovecraft only with happy endings instead of sanity-eating. Then she eliminates all mundane obstacles to the happy ending immediately. Beauty’s family is coming down the road for the wedding, the Overlord Villain Dude gets in his carriage and drives away without saying a word to anyone, not even, “That was my favorite minion!” and the one single law that the characters wanted to go away goes away.

    I think that books with fairly conservative worlds, characters that are bound to the worlds, are interesting; I’m thinking Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books here, too. It gives the characters new limitations. But they can be hard to do properly. Most of the time, it’s a justification for things the author would otherwise be rightly called on, like Bishop’s dysfunctional feminism/antifeminism and the feudal system here. I can’t think of anything that makes it work properly.

    • sartorias

      Yeah . . . and the villain barely spoke a single line before we were told he was the villain. Told at a distance, between many, many discursions.

      • diatryma

        I’d like her to write something that isn’t Beauty and the Beast. That fairy tale doesn’t have a villain, and that makes the stories be about things other than the villain’s plots. The bad guy is always kind of tacked on rather than being an integral part of the story.

        • sartorias

          She really does seem to have a lifelong thematic dialog with Beauty and the Beast, doesn’t she?

          • diatryma

            Hugely and obviously. Which is not a bad thing, except she tends to go more toward retellings rather than explorations. Beauty, Rose Daughter, Chalice– Sunshine? I don’t think Sunshine, though she does throw in a mention at the beginning. Of the three, I think Chalice feels most limited by the fact that it’s a retelling. Really, no one else tells the Master his name? He has to be nameless through the entire book, like a Beast?

            She did something with Sleeping Beauty. She did something with Deerskin. Why not do something with this one, too?

          • sartorias

            Oh, but Sunshine is Beauty and the Beast, too. C is a vamp, but a beast.

          • diatryma

            I can see that, but I don’t quite buy it. In the subgenre of ‘stories pertaining to B&B’, yes, definitely– some of Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels in there, too– but I don’t think it’s a retelling in the same way. Or would this be where she explores the tale, and departs from it so much I don’t see it? If so, whoo, and keep doing it, Robin McKinley, because the book is better for it.

            Although restless yet anchored-in-daily-life young woman meets calm, knowlegeable, accepting-of-liminal more-than-man and does stuff which empowers her, that’s the same two characters.

            Hm. Taking Sunshine as B&B, this is the kind of exploration I want: she has a life outside the castle/Beast, she doesn’t end up romantically entangled (Dear Robin McKinley: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO USE THOSE WORDS.)

            I’d really like a sequel, but after reading her recent books, I fear it too.

          • sartorias

            Ah, interesting thoughts.

            And yes, I agree.

          • Marie Brennan

            . . . you know, I hadn’t actually made that connection until you said it. I mean, the specific retellings, sure, but not the connection to (say) Chalice.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s Lovecraft only with happy endings instead of sanity-eating.


      Also much laughing on the scene-summary. 🙂

      Yes on the excessively easy denoument — but that feels part and parcel of the way the book skimmed over so much stuff throughout, and didn’t really development.

      I’m not sure I would call these conservative worlds justification for those examples you give; but you’re right that in neither case do those things quite work for me, where “working” means being explored with sufficient attention.

      • diatryma

        A feature of fantasy and science fiction, more the former than the latter, is that if we want a culture to have certain characteristics, we can make it so. It’s often like Le Guin only without all the good.

        • Marie Brennan

          I think of it as the laboratory aspect of spec fic. You can set up your conditions, then run an experiment within them, and see what happens. Less reproducible and quantifiable than actual science, of course, but “thought experiment” is a valid concept to me.

          To address the Black Jewels trilogy more, now that I’m not running off to karate: What I think worked for me there was, Bishop succeeded better than most authors I’ve seen at designing a cosmology which actually resonated as feminine. That is, she didn’t just say “it’s all centered on women!” — she used symbols Western culture associates with women. Webs, chalices, others I’ve forgotten now. But it felt like she had too much cosmology for one story, even a trilogy; that symbol-set went along with a tripartite world where some places existed in two or even three of those parts, plus all the politics that never really got explored that I can remember, plus, plus, plus.

          It’s sort of the reverse of the Chalice problem. The lack of exploration in the Black Jewels books came about because there were too many ideas for them all to be dealt with fairly, whereas in Chalice there weren’t enough ideas.

  3. cofax7

    Too much of it kept backtracking to tell me about things before the narrative began; for a while there it felt like two pages of present story, twenty pages of backstory. Too much of it was told in summary, the narration describing what happened when Mirasol talked with Clearseer or whoever, rather than actually showing me that interaction. Too much repetition — Mirasol lamenting her lack of apprenticeship, for example — for too little in the way of new development in character and plot

    This would be exactly the problem I had with Dragonhaven. Just… too much telling, not enough story. Lots and lots and lots of words, and yet no narrative drive. (Spoilers there.)

    It is disappointing to hear that this problem isn’t specific to Dragonhaven. I suspect it’s just the way she’s writing now.

  4. therck

    Here via a link on my friends list.

    I’m finding the discussion of both Chalice and Dragonhaven interesting because I have them both from the library and have to decide whether to return them unread or to renew them. I got them from the library rather than buying them because I’d seen comments from people that made me unsure about them. (I’ve had trouble the last several years with reading novels in general, so I’m cautious about what I start. Trying something I’d normally love and being unable to finish it tends to make me unlikely to attempt the book again.)

    • Marie Brennan

      I can understand your hesitation. As long as you don’t think trying these books will put you off McKinley, I’d say they’re worth giving a try; if you’re afraid they’ll mess up your ability to enjoy her in general, you might want to give them a pass.

    • sgac

      ymmv, but I liked Dragonhaven. I remember a moment of bogglement as I started – “wtf, the whole book’s like this?” – but if you can get through the first chapter without screaming you’ll be fine. I agree that the plot and style and structure and everything is, um, odd? idiosyncratic? unusual? sub-optimal(in places)? But it’s the sort of book that is what it is and doesn’t try to be anything else. The things that other people call faults are part of the point, I think.

      • Marie Brennan

        If part of the point is to keep glossing over events, telling about them after the fact in a manner that disrupts the forward movement of the story, repeating certain points endlessly, and (as a result of these things) having very little complication to the story, then it is (sadly) a book I don’t think I want to be reading. I’ll still probably give Dragonhaven a try, but my annoyance with those craft aspects kept kicking me out of the narrative of Chalice.

        • amysun

          Let me know if you want to borrow Dragonhaven from me. I wasn’t able to get through it myself … but I do plan to try again at some point.

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