I’ve been a fan of McKinley’s for some time, but I was disappointed by her last two novels so I didn’t rush for Pegasus (2010) when it came out. It was a talking flying pony book, after all, and early reviews pointed out that it was half a book and did not resolve. I was glad I knew that because it is true—this is not a complete story, and this is the first time that I can think of that McKinley has done this. There will be a sequel. Good. I’ll be buying it. Because, while it is absolutely true that this is a talking flying pony book with a perfect princess who is the only one who can really talk to the pegasi, it’s also surprisingly fun. Fortunately, I’m not one to dismiss a book unconsidered because horses talk.
The thing that makes this an actually good book is the culture of the pegasi. The backstory, explained on the first page, is that humans arrived in this country at a medieval tech level eight hundred years ago to find the pegasi about to lose a war to wyverns, rocs, and other monsters. The humans and pegasi made an alliance by which the pegasi got the highlands and the humans the lowlands, and the human royalty and pegasus royalty undergo a ceremony of binding which makes up for the fact that they can’t learn each other’s languages. All this changes when Sylviianel, Sylvi for short, and her pegasus Ebon truly bond and can talk telepathically.
So far so utterly predictable, and so satisfying for the id but irritating for the superego. The world and the worldbuilding, are very satisfying. (Except if you’re going to complain that they’re still medieval after eight hundred years. But if that bothers you, why are you reading fantasy in the first place? Moving swiftly on…) For one thing, McKinley is using very different mythology here, and to good effect. For another, Sylvi’s mother the queen is rarely home as she’s always off leading the army against monsters. Best of all, Sylvi’s amazing ability is greeted with fear and mistrust by a political grouping of humans, and Sylvi’s father the king has to work around this. And this is before we even get to the nifty stuff about how intelligent flying horse culture works.
There’s a lot of magic. There are magical creatures. This is the stuff one expects McKinley to get right and she absolutely does. I started out with some scepticism about this and was completely won over. Every time I rolled my eyes, it turned out to be set up for something much better—anything superficially dumb ends up with a very clever and satisfying explanation. Also, pegasi envy human hands, as humans envy the pegasus flight. They have culturte. They have factions. They have problems, and so do the humans.
I’ve argued that the reason we have so many fantasy stories about kings and princesses is because the fairy tale originals of such stories are really about families, blown up in scale. This is certainly true of Pegasus, it’s a story about growing up in a family and having responsibilities, expanded out. It’s also very sincere. Sometimes I read something, particularly YA, and I feel as if the author is a step behind the words sneering at the reader. Here I feel that McKinley knows perfectly well that this is the ultimate princess and pony book and is thinking “YES!” This is all deftly handled. I thought Chalice was thin and Dragonhaven was tedious, but McKinley is really back in form here.
My considered reflection on Pegasus is that it would be absolutely perfect if I were eleven, and you should all buy this for the eleven year olds in your life. Also, unless you’re absolutely allergic to the idea of intelligent pegasi you should read it yourself, because your inner eleven year old will thank you for it.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.