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Sunday, December 28th, 2014 05:24 pm
During our travel to and from Nebraska this Christmas, I finally read Robin McKinley's latest novel, Shadows. It's an (urban) fantasy story set in a small city in "Newworld", which seems to be a fairly close copy of modern America (to the extent that highschoolers still read books like "Anna Karenina", which of course must have been written somewhere in the Slavic parts of "Oldworld"). The setting is intriguing: two or three generations earlier, the government of Newworld banned everything to do with magic, and required all children with magical ability to have the gene for it medically removed. Now, when dangerous "cohesion breaks" appear (due to intrusions of other worlds), instead of magicians handling the problem the Newworld military rushes in to contain and close them using scientific equipment. That's the setting; the story itself is about a high school senior who can't stand her new stepfather and the unsettling way that the shadows around him seem much more alive and threatening than they have any right to be.

I'm not quite sure what to say about the book. I liked the setting, both the parts that were spelled out in detail and the parts that were just hinted at: it felt similar in some ways to the setting of Sunshine, though with more of an "oppressive government" vibe rather than Sunshine's "post-war recovery" feel. I liked the characters, too: the high school kids seemed realistically done (though I was sad that the lead character was was so down on math), and the adults were a fine supporting cast (as seen through high school eyes). Even the general shape of the story was good.

But overall, I think that the pacing just felt a bit off. That became clear to me when the action was just on the verge of taking off and I realized that I was already 2/3 of the way through the book. In terms of the ebb and flow of the story, this whole book feels a lot like Sunshine might if that book ended just after Rae woke up at home the morning after her escape (the end of "Part 1": its first third). The slow initial pace may have also contributed to a bit too much telegraphing of some "mysteries" that are revealed midway through the story. I can't begrudge the attention that McKinley gives to establishing the characters and their relationships, which she does quite well, but I really wish we had an Act 2 and Act 3 to realize a bit of the potential that's hastily suggested in the final few pages of the novel. (I might feel more content to accept that unfinished business if McKinley ever wrote sequels.)

So what's my take-home review? If you enjoy McKinley's writing, Shadows is worth reading. I'd place it happily in the second tier of her work, below the Damar books and Sunshine but clearly above, say, Chalice. It's fun, but I wish it had been just a little bit more than that.



[spoiler aside]




In my head, Maggie eventually happens to start folding pages out of a calculus book, and her spells get even more awesome.
[/spoiler]
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