Khanh the Killjoy


Shadows - Robin McKinley

In my youth, I have read and loved all of Robin McKinley's fantasies. Therefore, it is with a considerable amount of disappointment that I have to admit that I wish she had stuck to that genre after reading this book. Shadows provided me with little enjoyment. This could be considered fantasy, but it is a convoluted sort of fantasy that makes little or no sense. The world building is confusing. The lingo is nonsensical. I desperately wished for a glossary, footnotes, anything to help me with the piss-poor pseudo-dystopian/semi-coherent alternate universe, whatever this book is.

There is magic within this book, but the experience of reading this book is not magical. It is a rambling stream of consciousness with a mess of an insta-love and an insinuated love triangle, narrated by a tedious, unlikeable, annoying teenaged girl.

The summary is deceptively simple, but the execution of it is convoluted, confounding. Maggie lives in Newworld with her widowed mother and younger brother, Ran. It is a pretty ordinary existence, she goes to high school and hangs out with her best friends, Taks and Jill, she volunteers at the local pet shelter---until a major disturbance comes into her life in the form of a deceptively ordinary stepfather. Maggie hates her stepfather, Val, but her hatred goes beyond the usually reasons; Val is creepy. There are shadows surrounding him.

I was watching the shadows on the wall behind Val’s chair. They were too lively and there were way too many of them. One or another of them always seemed about to turn into something I could recognize—a Komodo dragon or an alligator or a ninety-tentacled space alien.

They snake around him, they surround him, they're twisty, tentacled, sinister shadow creatures. And only Maggie can see them. Maggie tries to hide her disgust and hatred of Val, for her mother's sake, she even grits her teeth and doesn't speak a word about it (really, who would believe her?). Until one day, the shadows get to be more than she can handle. Maggie snaps.

I’d had it. I’d had it.
I could have done one of two things. I could have screamed, run back out the front door and never come back. I could have become the Phantom of the Shelter, only coming out at night to clean kennels. Or I could get so furious I forgot to be frightened, thinking this monster, this magic user, living in my house, married to my mom—and run forward, straight at the snake-shadow thing, and screamed at Val.
I chose the second.
“What the gods’ holy engines is it with you?” I shouted. “I’m sick of your stupid horrible shadows crawling around! What are they! What are you? What are you doing out there in the shed? What are you? What are you doing here?”

Who is Val? What is he? Who is Casimir, the strange, beautiful foreign boy who is oddly fascinated by Maggie? What does Maggie's heritage got to do with all this forbidden magic?

The setting: The world building is alternately overwhelming, and utterly lacking. There are so many terms thrown at us. There are new lingos; dreeping, flastic, bugsuck, whizztizz. And then there are the foreign terms. Mgdada, chabaled, nazok, gruuaa, guldagi.

There is Oldworld, Newworld, Southworld, Midworld, Farworld, with few explanations for their existence. Oh, and then there's Japan and England and Scotland and other countries of the world, which still exists, for some fucking reason and I'm not quite sure where they fit into the scheme of Oldworld, Newworld, etc.

There is NIDL. There are silverbugs, which are supposed to be avoided at all cost, but it is never entirely explained as to what the fuck they are and particularly why they're so dangerous.

There is gene-chopping to cut out the magical genes within a family without a compelling reason as to why magic is forbidden, as to why it is so utterly condemned and dangerous. I never got a clear sense of any sort of rhyme or reason for anything that goes on in this spastic fantasy/sci-fi crossbred world. There is the watchguard. There is neutralization. There is physwiz. There is NIDL. There the overwatch. There are countries like Ukovia, Orzastan. Lest you get the sense that this is indeed a magical world, it is not. Newworld is bland. Boring. Mechanical. There is nothing compelling about the world in which this book is set. I really could have used a glossary, because this book's narrator does a piss poor job of explaining what the actual fuck is going on.

The plot: I hate to sound like a broken record here, but it cannot be helped. Confusing is the word of the day. The plot and the world building is the worst part of this book. This book's plot is so utterly disjointed. The summary made the plot compelling, it is not. The only thing it does well is in the depiction of the horror and tension that builds up while Maggie tries to come to terms with the shadows surrounding her stepfather. Everything else is so dull. It is a story about a girl who deals with shadows and the potential presence of forbidden magic in her life, while dealing with an insta-love, and a potential love triangle for her newly hot best friend. There's some stuff about going on a rescue mission, about discovering one's heritage, but honestly, the book completely lost me far before that point.

The narrative: First person POV, the prose is more or less stream-of-consciousness, and coming from an angry, sullen, somewhat rebellious 17 year old girl, it is really fucking annoying at times. Take this paragraph, from the first chapter of the book:

He was short and hairy and didn’t know how to wear Newworld clothes and spoke with a funny accent and used a lot of really dreeping words that nobody in Newworld had used in two hundred years. Have you ever heard anyone say “ablutions?” I didn’t think so. He looked like the kind of creepazoid you’d cross the street to avoid walking past too close to. And this guy who looks like a homeless crazydumb who’s about to start shouting about the evil magician who planted electrodes in his brain stands there smiling gently at my mother...and she laughs and puts her arm through his because she loves him. Uggh.

Maggie's narration is erratic. She is not entirely focused. She goes off her train of thought often, she goes off on tangents, and I could barely tolerate her as a narrator. I felt sympathy for her towards the beginning of the story, but Maggie grated on my nerves so much that she becomes almost intolerable throughout the story.

She's also got this little habit of dropping Japanese phrases into her narration. Shimatta. Kuso. Baka. Sumimasen. Domo arigato gozaimasu. Maggie's usage of random Japanese words in her everyday vocabulary stemmed from her grade-school self's need to annoy the fuck out of her quiet half-Japanese best friend, Taks; unfortunately, that habit lasted far beyond her childhood, to continue on the tradition of annoying others, namely, readers such as myself.

The characters: Underwhelming. Maggie is a ball of energy, she is erratic, she almost feels spastic at times, but I didn't get much personality out of her besides that. The rest of the characters are unremarkable, inoffensive, but completely tedious.

The romance: Why? WHY?! I know the romance is a broken record complaint from me, but there really was no point at all to the romance in this story. It turned Maggie from an ordinary girl into a special snowflake when the mysterious, starkly foreign boy falls in love with her and her special snowflakeness. It was so completely out of nowhere, it added nothing to the already uncompelling plot besides to further aggravate my nerves.

I always thought that “my heart turned over” was just a phrase.
And then he smiled. At me. At me.
My heart turned over.
He wasn’t too pretty. Trust me. He was not too pretty. Oh, did I mention the dimple? He had a dimple in one cheek. Oh. Gods. Oh. Gods.

And then the stupid love triangle thing with the best friend who got hot overnight. So predictable.

I had way, way too much to think about...and Casimir’s face started drifting across my mind’s eye and that made my heart beat even faster than thinking about Val’s shadows did.
Funny, I thought vaguely, that Takahiro’s face appeared a few times too. Takahiro was my friend, even if he was annoying a lot of the time, but he was too tall and too solemn to crush on.

Right. Then stop fantasizing about his naked ass.

Despite its claims, there is nothing that feels magical, nothing fantastic about reading this book. Please read one of Robin McKinley's older works; they are superior to this terrible novel.