Rose Daughter

I just finished Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. I have to say, I’m not as wild about it as I was about Deerskin, her retelling of the Donkeyskin fairy tale. I really liked Deerskin (reviewed here,) but I did not enjoy Rose Daughter. I wanted to, but it was just so slow.

She lays the fairytale style on pretty thick. There is a lot of telling rather than showing, especially in the beginning. That, along with the old-fashioned language, multitude of dream sequences, unnecessary descriptions of random objects, and messy or missing dialogue, mean the story really isn’t nearly as gripping as it could be. Beauty isn’t the most inspiring heroine, either. She’s supposed to be the sensible one in her family, but doesn’t come across as being sensible as much as being a bit bland. Her stronger and more appealing trait is that she’s kind, to the point of having very little sense of self preservation. That last bit is kind of necessitated by the story, but I still feel like it negates her sensibleness somewhat.

The story is set in a generic fantasy land, complete with griffins, fire salamanders, and unicorns, but the fantasy creatures aren’t really any more relevant than real critters or human characters would’ve been, and I found it weirdly distracting to suddenly have to stop and wonder how one trains a hydra to answer the front door. One, more unique, touch is that roses are incredibly rare in this world, because they require either magic or love to bloom. Despite this, there are more roses in this story than I think I’ve ever actually seen in my life.

We don’t even meet the beast in this rendition of Beauty and the Beast until about halfway through. I like the elements that felt like they had been inspired by older stories, rather than Disney. The magical servants aren’t personified household objects, for example. Beauty’s sisters, Lionheart and Jeweltongue (yep, those are their names,) have their own plot lines, both of which are honestly a bit more relatable and compelling than Beauty’s. I would absolutely read a whole book written about Lionheart. She was fun. I did like the relationships between the sisters and their father, but they didn’t change much. I would’ve enjoyed more focus on them all growing together through their hardships, since so much time was already spent on setting the story up.

She managed to create a beast who doesn’t give me heavy domestic abuser vibes, so that’s cool. Beauty is still weirdly chill about him having essentially kidnapped her, though. Her shifting opinion of him makes about as much sense as all the other conclusions she draws about the mysteries around her, in that it all has very little to do with the evidence we’re actually shown. That was what bothered me the most, by the end. She jumped to conclusions sometimes, and other times actively avoided answers that seemed obvious. When it was convenient, she would just forget things. It was also rarely clear what the stakes were, in this world that was so densely populated with magic and magical creatures. None of the rules for how the magic worked were remotely consistent, nor were they ever explained. I couldn’t even tell if the characters themselves had any better sense of how magic normally worked. Half the time, Beauty would come out of some trance or dream sequence and staunchly deny that it had been real. Of course, right after denying that her visions could be real, she calmly accepted being dressed by magical invisible servants, strolled through a constantly changing palace, and had dinner with a dude who had been turned into a giant monster. Her constant confusion and disbelief were pretty annoying, given that she had zero reason to doubt anything she saw or heard in this world where magic apparently has no limits.

I am, possibly, being overly nit-picky about believability in a story where the magic itself was clearly not the point, but if the point was the romance, then that also missed the mark. I was on board for a nice romantic story, but she had better chemistry with her sisters and the roses she tended than she did with the Beast. It was sweet, but not worth all the empty dialogue, deliberate misunderstandings, and odd side-plots that did nothing to advance or explain the main story.

I often recommend the audiobook versions of the stories I read, but in this case I think it just slowed everything down and made the dialogue more frustrating. I’d pick it up in print or as an ebook, unless you’re looking for something to help you sleep. That’s not snark, just a suggestion. This might be a great book for listening to at bedtime. It’s not violent, particularly action-filled, or creepy, and it has a fairly soothing rhythm. That’s rare enough to warrant mention.

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The rose theme was intense. If you really really like roses, this book may be for you.

Writing days this past week: 3

The Power of Thresholds

One of my favorite recurring themes in fantasy is the protective threshold that forms around homes, shielding the inhabitants from supernatural harm. An unoccupied space has no protective threshold, but a home¬†does. It just feels intuitive, that homes would have power to them beyond the physical walls that they provide. Feeling like I have a home, verses just a place to sleep and hang my proverbial hat, is really important to me. It can be a hard feeling to hang on to when renting, never really knowing when the next move might come, and especially when living in a city that’s far away from family and friends.

I particularly appreciate magic systems with thresholds that don’t just automatically pop into place when a place becomes occupied, because that doesn’t feel quite right. Just like it takes a while for a new dwelling to become familiar, it should take a while for that special homeness of it to grow and become strong enough to protect the people inside. That sort of power feels like something that’s built by the love and care of the people living there, and I’ve noticed that a lot authors include something of that in their particular twist on this theme.

Everyone does handle it differently, which is really cool. We all know that vampires can’t come into a house without being invited, but there’s a lot of variation on the idea. Depending on the author’s magical system, thresholds might just protect against the undead, or they may protect against all sorts of supernatural threats. In The Dresden Files, thresholds provide basic protection against supernatural threats, and are also a framework onto which more sophisticated magical protection can be built, like a scaffold. Inviting someone to cross the threshold often binds both guest and host to certain ritual responsibilities to each other, which is a very old idea, deeply rooted in folklore.

Homes have, historically, been a place of refuge in a dangerous world. Family mattered, of course, because who else would protect you from outer threats? Under good circumstances, (which, unfortunately, is not a given) family creates a sense of safety that’s almost palpable, whether it’s a family of two, or a large and extended family – whether they’re blood relatives, partners, or other people that you’ve chosen to be close with.¬†People who live together may carry shared grief, as well as good memories, and can draw comfort from that. On the lighter side, homes are ideally shared with people who won’t judge you for your goofy jokes, because you share a sense of humor. Familiarity is a form of safety that makes it easier to relax and be yourself.

Beyond family, there’s also the love and care that’s put directly into a space. A person living alone could strengthen their threshold by caring for houseplants, organizing their bookshelves, cuddling with a pet on a rainy day, filling the place with their favorite things, cooking and cleaning, or just by loving the familiar chaos of their own messy little nest. Boundaries – the ability to decide who you share your space with, and when – are fundamental to the idea of a protective threshold. A home can be a powerful place, even (or especially) if it is just one person’s cherished sanctuary.

Magic generally comes from the energy within people, and so much emotional energy is expended in and on the places in which we live.

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Writing days this week: 2