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Being a review of Robin McKinley's Pegasus, plus about half a review of C.J. Cherryh's Rider at the Gate and Naomi Novik's everything.

Preface: Mercedes Lackey:
I have never read anything by Mercedes Lackey. I don't really feel that I need to: she's one of those authors whom everybody talks about,  but usually only to comment on how problematic her books are, or what dorks they were as preteens, reading them. And because of That, I feel as though I have a reasonable grasp of her themes, universe, and style: and so I need not bother to read them in order to keep up with their place in the fannish universe, their impact on later writers.
I stress these things--that I have not read her works, and do not think I need to--because her influence IS significant; and because several of the works that I want to talk about today might as well have started from the same writing prompt, namely "OK, if you had a Mercedes Lackey-style animal companion thing going on, how would that Really work in practice?”

I am speaking, of course, about C.J. Cherryh’s Rider at the Gate books and Robin McKinley’s Pegasus. Rider takes up this theme of telepathic horses, while also exploring the epithet sometimes applied to Star Wars - a Space Western - would work if taken literally. In its world, a population of humans is stranded (by the collapse or by the deliberate decision of some interstellar civilization) on a planet where most of the native lifeforms have telepathic powers (often nasty ones). Their technology devolves to 19th-century levels, with some surviving bits of carefully-maintained space-age technology still kicking around. To survive in a world where all the predators are telepathic, they have to rely on Nighthorses—also telepathic, omniverous predators, but ones that find human thoughts interesting enough to want to help them, rather than eat them. Their riders, therefore, form a separate caste in a society where religion and social hierarchy alike dictate keeping yourself as “pure” from the influence of the planet’s lifeforms as possible. They are also set apart by their jobs, which broadly amount to protecting people from the aforesaid telepathic wildlife, and hence which frequently take them (and their horses) out into the backcountry. Rider explores this world—its castes, its economy, its interspecies relations, its crumbling infrastructure and weird cultural issues—as three nighthorse-human pairs navigate a complex crisis that is eventually going to draw all three of them together. So it plays out sorta like a combination crime novel and Bildungsroman—which I guess is actually probably par for the course with Western novels.
Only this is actually a novel I’d want to read. And also, it has more telepathic horse sex.*

The premise of Pegasus is ALMOST similar: in this medievalish world, royalty get telepathically bonded with pegasi. Well that’s the theory. The reality is that communication is limited at best (“My father says he and your Dad have got like a hundred words or ideas or things they can get across pretty well and then everything else has to be built up around one of them and sometimes they do and mostly they don’t.”). Most communication has to be done through wizard-interpreters.

So you can imagine how much upheaval it causes when the heroine and her bonded pegasus ACTUALLY turn out to be able to talk to each other.

So there’s nothing wrong with this as a premise. Well, aside from the fact that taking the telepathic animal companion thing and running with it has potential pitfalls, and as I think I’ve already said, Cherryh manages to avoid ‘em. Pegasus…doesn’t. It is, if you’ll pardon the (sortof) pun—hackneyed. I mean, SOME of the worldbuilding’s good, and some of the plot devices are pretty interesting, but, well, of COURSE our heroes have a DEEP and INTIMATE connection, and of COURSE no one understands, and society tries to separate them, and...yeah, you predicted all that, and it wasn’t even that well done. And some bits just drag on at wholly unnecessary length.
The other - and in some ways, more unfortunate - thing is that…this thing just keeps reading like someone’s writing McKinley fanfic, and not even doing it very well: basically taking Aerin’s Damar (down to the characters), taking out the dragons (mostly) and the North, adding in flying telepathic horses, and thus winding up with bits that feel like an uneasy HatC/Dragonhaven mashup. It’s sort of interesting to see the family dynamics of HatC fleshed out in more detail, but otherwise, it too often reads like something that crawled out of the Pit of Voles.

And thus it stands in weird contrast with Naomi Novik’s Uprooted. I’m not going to go into huge detail about this last: the one thing I want to observe** is that it has that really visceral terror, that sense of perfect craftsmanship, and that real emotional connection between reader and characters that McKinley’s best works have. And that Pegasus lacks. Despite the fact that McKinley’s the author of that one, while Novik is an unashamed fanfic writer, whose most famous work is Aubrey/Maturin, down to the 19th century language, add dragons. Which takes us straight back to Your Mythic Animal Companion And You Save The World.

It’s like they wrote each other’s books.

Instead, in reading these I learned what I should have realized earlier: that Novik is NOT a one-trick pony dragon, and that Robin McKinley's work of absolute brilliance*** is interspersed with stuff that is abso...uh, not as brilliant.

* Not, I hasten to add, with humans. Neither of these books has that. Well, not yet, anyway. If Cherryh wrote a third Rider book, or McKinley ACTUALLY writes the sequel to Pegasus, that might change…

** Other than that it’s awesome, and if by some chance you haven’t read it you should drop whatever your doing and get your hands on a copy, stat.

*** Except for the endings. I think Hero and the Crown is the only thing I've read of hers where she actually sticks the ending.


NOTE: I started this review right after Readercon, and then it mouldered on my desktop for several weeks. Tonight I was feeling restless and angry and useless, and so decided I might as well get THIS done, anyway; except I'd forgotten about half the more cleverly vitriolic things I was gonna say about Pegasus. Oh well, have a review.

Date: 2017-08-16 03:47 am (UTC)
sovay: (Sovay: David Owen)
From: [personal profile] sovay
So it plays out sorta like a combination crime novel and Bildungsroman—which I guess is actually probably par for the course with Western novels.

I really, really need to read these books.

I think Hero and the Crown is the only thing I've read of hers where she actually sticks the ending.

It's kind of the only one that has an ending.
Edited Date: 2017-08-16 03:48 am (UTC)

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