Review of Shadows by Robin McKinley

Did they really just Photoshop in a sun in the corner? Grr, this cover manages to be both boring and unattractive.

Shadows by Robin McKinley. ★★1/2

If you’ve read any other Robin McKinley books, Shadows will be very familiar. An animal loving girl goes to have her mystical climatic encounter that draws upon her unexplored magical heritage, all the while accompanied by a practical herd of random animals.

Shadows is written in the stream of conscious, first person style that McKinley employees for both Sunshine and Dragonhaven. Maggie, the main character, lives in Newworld, where magic is illegal and science rules. When her mom marries Val, who’s from the magical Oldworld, Maggie isn’t happy – Val has strange shadows that move independently of him. This about sums up the first hundred pages of the book. However, the summery hints at things that don’t really appear. See the last paragraph of it: “In this dangerously unstable world, neither science nor magic has the necessary answers, but a truce between them is impossible. And although the two are supposed to be incompatible, Maggie’s discovering the world will need both to survive.”

“Ahh,” I think, “this book will be focused around the balance between science and magic. That will play a large role in the ending, and new discoveries about it will be made.” This never happens. 

I’m not really sure what does happen. The entire book is very meandering with crucial elements going unexplained or unexplored and with notable plot holes and logic fails popping up all over the place. While Sunshine and Dragonhaven had some of the same meandering quality, it worked for them because of an interesting narrator and more structure to the plot. Maggie… well, I never felt like I got a grasp on her. I’d say that it’s probably because her life’s pretty boring. She’s just the normal teenager going to high school. Yes, she happens to be the chosen one, but that element isn’t explored much. Besides, you need something other than “chosen one” to make you an interesting character.

I’m not really sure how the world set up works either. Maggie lives in Newworld (probably the US), which has banned magic and prefers technology. Maggie’s stepfather comes from Oldworld (probably Europe), which is all about magic. There’s also Farworld (totally Asia) and Southworld (no idea). So, are world’s continents? Why do we divide them up like this? Are all continents homogeneous in their approach to magic? Then what the heck’s up with Farworld and Southworld? Besides throwing the names out there and the “Newworld’s science, Oldworld’s magic” almost nothing is mentioned.

At the start of this review, I was complaining that this felt like a collection of all the “standard Robin McKinley elements.” Unexplored magical heritage – Sunshine. Random herd of animals – Spindle’s End and The Hero and the Crown. Animal loving – pretty much every book. Mystical climatic encounter – every single book (I’m serious here).

A couple pages in, Maggie starts talking about her dog. “Ahh, of course she has an animal companion,” I think, “It’s a Robin McKinley book.” By the end, when she goes to have her mystical climatic encounter that draws upon her magical heritage, she’s accompanied by six dogs and a cat. Oh, and some sheep and rabbits show up around then.

I don’t think I’d be as annoyed if it was just the one dog. One dog, that’s reasonable. Six? Really? She’s already done that with Deerskin, and the dogs were actually relevant in that book. For Shadows, they were just sort of tagging along. Supposedly animals somehow prevent the amydar (some sort of vague radar that the army is using for vague purposes, possibly to search for magic usage, also vaguely defined) from finding them or causing headaches. Or maybe both. This was never explained. It was just sort of presented as a reason for dragging a whole pack of dogs along with her.

The back of the book says, “Maggie meets Casimir, the most beautiful boy she has ever seen.” I probably should I used this as a clue that there was going to be a lot of teen romance in this one, but it’s a Robin McKinley book. She doesn’t normally have a large focus on the romance elements. But Shadows has the mandatory love triangle, and guess what? One of them’s a werewolf!

To be fair, the love triangle wasn’t too odorous and did get tied up reasonably before the end. But, still. Casually thrown in werewolves?

On an upbeat, I did love the magical algebra textbook.

I’m not sure I can recommend this one. I have a friend who adores it, and she’s usually the pickiest reader around, so Shadows can’t be all bad. If you’re new to Robin McKinley, I’d suggest The Hero and the Crown or Sunshine instead. If you’re already a fan and bent on reading Shadows, all I can say is try to get it from the library instead of buying a copy. In all likelihood, this won’t be one you’ll want to reread.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. I don’t love Shadows the way I love Beauty and Sunshine, but I never expect to love a Robin McKinley as much as those two. I think my expectations for Shadow were so low (because I haven’t liked any of her recent books much, Dragonhaven or Chalice or those ones) that it benefited the book and I ended up quite enjoying it. But the negative points you describe are definitely there — very Robin Mckinleyish they are too.

    1. I actually really enjoyed both Chalice and Dragonhaven, which may have made this one more of a disappointment.

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