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Even though I'm going to start out by talking about the ending, this review is spoiler-free. I make no promises or guarantees about the contents of the comments.

Pegasus doesn't end. It cuts off in the middle of a scene. I turned the page, expecting to see a "read the thrilling conclusion to this story in the next book" ad. Instead I found an ad for the paperback edition of Chalice, McKinley's last book. After I said, "What the fuck?" very loudly and tweeted, "Robin McKinley, that is NOT A FUCKING ENDING. This might be enough to keep me from ever reading another of your books. >:(", I googled it. Robin McKinley's official website says, "Pegasus II: coming in 2012!" If I'd known that, I wouldn't have read the book yet. And this is why this unrec is possibly only temporary. If the second book finishes up the story, I might upgrade this back up to a "if you like this kind of thing, you'll like this book" rec.

I'm kind of baffled by anyone letting a book go to print with this kind of ending. I'm baffled by anyone submitting a manuscript with this kind of ending to their publisher. The only thing I can possibly imagine is that she had a contract and was on deadline, and this was the only way she could meet her deadline. The publisher then had to decide that it was worth publishing as is and depending on Robin McKinley's name to sell the book. But this is grossly incompetent editing. What they should have done is make her finish the story and then work with her to cut it down into one long book, or two shorter ones.

As I was reading, I kept thinking that I needed to make a "things I would have made you fix in editing" post about it, because for most of the book, it was good but could've been great. The ending downgrades it to terrible, but I still remember all of the things that could have been fixed in editing, so the rest of this post is about how this could have been a much better book in the hands of an editor willing to make McKinley do some serious work on it.

The first two hundred pages of Pegasus are set-up and worldbuilding. I can totally understand needing to write those two hundred pages, to get yourself settled into your story and your world. But there's an editing process you need to go through afterwards. In the editing process, you chop out most of this background. Anything that's actually necessary to the story can stay - twenty pages of set-up would have sufficed - or get worked into the narrative. You can tell there wasn't any good editing of the set-up because even with two hundred pages of it, the fact about the world that the last scene of the book hinges on is something we don't learn until it comes up in that scene. I can understand how this happens as a writer: you get to a point where you need a reason for a scene to work, and you think, "I can do this." But then you have to go back and set up that this earlier in the book. It wouldn't have been hard to do, especially with two hundred pages to tell us about the world.

I didn't figure out until quite a ways into the book that it takes place in the same world (although several hundred years later) as The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword. This is another thing I would have liked to have known before I started reading, because I would have reread those two before reading this one. As far as I can tell, understanding this book doesn't depend on having read those two, but reading them probably would have let me be less diligent about reading every word of the worldbuilding in this one.

At its heart, Pegasus is a story about a small girl on the cusp of adulthood learning the history of and how to use the magic she finds herself in command of. The problem with this is that I've read this book before, and I liked it better when it was Chalice. There are too many moments in Pegasus where Sylvi's mannerisms are too much like Mirasol's. Pegasus needed an editor who was familiar enough with McKinley's work to recognize when this was happening and needed to be reworked. Again, as a writer, I understand how this happens. We all tend to write the same story over and over again. But McKinley has the ability to make her books different enough that I don't feel like I've read each new one before. Deerskin and Spindle's End (my favorites of her books) tell similar stories, and yet they feel very different. Sunshine is completely different again. Pegasus had potential to be a different story than Chalice, but apparently no one did the work to make that happen.

The last thing I'm going to mention about the editing is the random smattering of Britishisms. If you want to write a British book, there's nothing wrong with that. But this is not primarily a British book - except for a few instances of British terminology. The most jarring is "round corners of rock" which I was only able to parse out as "around corners of rock" because of the parallelism with the rest of the sentence: "Everywhere they went there were more groups of pegasi, who came as if from nowhere to see them - they always appeared from round corners of rock, or up steep paths or through trees, never flying overhead." The Britishisms really are just terminology, and they would have been extremely easy to fix.

That, I think, is what makes good books that could have been great so disappointing: it would have taken so little work (beyond the big work of not letting her end the book where it does) to make this book so much better.
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What They Always Tell Us has one very nice bit, and one cliched but good bit, both of which I will reproduce here so you don't actually have to read the book:

Spoilers )

The rest of the book, however, is not worth your time. Trust me.

I had a discussion with some friends about how gay men writing gay YA lit almost always have some sort of generational tell. It took me a surprisingly long time to realize that one of the things bothering me about the book was one of these. The kids in the book all have parents who are doctors, lawyers, professors. All of the kids have their own cars. No one has a cell phone. One character has his own phone line in his room. Look, I get that we all want to tell our own stories, but they make for bad - or at least problematic - fiction when we do it deliberately. With no time orientation in a story, the reader will assume it takes place now, and now teenagers, especially upper middle class ones, have cell phones. The attitudes in the book seem pretty much nowish, so I'm pretty sure it's not just that I missed the time orientation cues.

Beyond that, the biggest problem with the book is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be, which means it's never quite successful at being anything in particular. The book is the story of what happens over the course of a school year: Alex's junior year and his brother James' senior year. The book mostly ambles along, which is true to life, but real life is more interesting to live than to read about.

Each chapter alternates between Alex's point of view and James', which is an interesting device that can work. Unfortunately, I found James completely unlikable for most of the book. He somewhat redeems himself later, but that initial dislike is a difficult hurdle to overcome, and I still don't like James much even after finishing the book.

The book is also in present tense, which shouldn't seem odd because I read a lot of present tense fic, but I finally realized it feels strange because it's a much more formal present tense than the casual, conversational present tense of fan fic.

More spoilers )

There is one other thing I have to mention, and that is that there is an odd, inexplicable reference to V.C. Andrews' Flowers in the Attic without mentioning it by name: "He's wearing shades and reading a creepy novel about a grandmother who locks her grandchildren in an attic." It was so odd that I can only conclude that it's one of the elements of his own life that Wilson put into the book.

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Ruth Sadelle Alderson

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